"It's quirky, it's melodramatic, and it's convoluted, but I couldn't help but crack a smile during much of Final Fantasy XIII-2."
Editor's Note: As a direct sequel to Final Fantasy XIII, this review contains spoilers of that title.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is nothing if not a pleasant surprise. It's not perfect - the characters are one-dimensional, the dialogue is asinine, and the overall plot feels like a bunch of episodes of Quantum Leap strung together. Despite these flaws, however, XIII-2 manages to provide some significant improvements over its predecessor, making it much more like the JRPGs of yore. With its fast, entertaining battle system, interesting monster-collection elements, streamlined leveling structure, and high production values, Final Fantasy XIII-2 should fill the desire of those looking for a solid RPG.
Now, let me be completely honest: there's little that's brand new in Final Fantasy XIII-2. As such, anyone expecting a revolutionary game is going to be sorely disappointed. The only truly new aspect, the game's story, is pedestrian at best. The plot is full of disposable characters, goofball dialogue, and stilted voice acting. Still, much like Yuna's journey to pop stardom, I doubt that many people are playing XIII-2 for its time-traveling decadence. The aforementioned Quantum Leap reference isn't completely off the mark. Newcomer Noel is Scott Bakula in that he can't remember large parts of his life; Serah is Dean Stockwell, who has memories of the way things used to be; and Mog is Ziggy, with a bunch of answers and abilities the others lack. They must travel between different points in time solving "paradoxes" and, ultimately, reunite Serah with Lightning. There's an overarching narrative with Serah and Noel, but each story "node" (accessed through the Historia Crux menu) has a mostly self-contained story.
What's frustrating is that the characters involved are either minor and forgettable or just plain unlikeable. Serah's group of friends seen at the very beginning of the game are quickly abandoned, their stories left unexplored and unresolved. Many of the recurring characters from XIII have purely fanservice roles, like Sazh and Dajh. Several characters receive far better treatment, however. The relationship between protagonist Noel, the mysterious Yuel, and the sinister Caius was entertaining enough, but it didn't buoy Serah's side of the story. Still, one thing I will admit is that Hope becomes a significantly improved character in this title, but he's playing a very different role than teenage misanthrope. There are also dialogue choices to be made, but they feels tacked on, as few choices have any real consequence. A few even have a "right" answer, so you'll be prompted again if you were incorrect in your stance. It seems like a nod to many Western RPGs, but the game could have survived without them. The plot is a vehicle for the gameplay, but nothing more. Those seeking a deeply involved and moving story may want to look elsewhere.
The other major issue I had with Final Fantasy XIII-2 was its flow, as the developers did not pace this game very well. For the first ten or twelve hours there's a very good balance between exploration, combat, and story sequences. But then everything hits a wall. Exploration is forced on the user and I had to spend hours of my time scouring different worlds for Artefacts (used to open the gates between worlds), as well as other objects. This is doubly upsetting in that some of these objects are hidden in plain sight, requiring a button press for Mog to reveal them. This forced exploration is a complete flip from XIII, but after all the wandering around is done, the last third of the game feels much like its predecessor. It's almost as if XIII-2 is paying homage to Xenosaga: far too many cutscenes with far too little control.
Still, with those negative elements aside, I found myself enjoying most of my time traveling in XIII-2. Combat is even faster than the original game, and that's a positive. It was rare for me to find myself dreading combat, and even when I did, it was relatively easy to avoid it. Aside from some refinements, which include less of a focus on staggering random opponents, the battle system is mostly unchanged. The addition of monsters, explored below, doesn't actually change much in the way of combat with the exception of Feral Links. These abilities charge over time and allow for quick attacks or buffs depending on the monster. It's a nice touch, but ultimately one that doesn't have a great effect. There is also the addition of wounding attacks, which lower maximum hit points for the duration of the battle unless cured with a specific potion. It adds a small bit of depth, though I rarely suffered massive wound damage even during some of the more lengthy battles.
Monster collecting is a fantastic addition to the game, providing the ability for a third class that doesn't need to be managed by the Crystarium. The monsters gain levels and experience, but their progression is entirely linear and managed by items rather than Crystarium Points. With five classes of monster power, it's easy to determine when you should swap over to a new set of creatures. You can even infuse new monsters with the powers of the old. This isn't entirely necessary, and I didn't end up taking advantage of it until much later in the game, but it's great for those who want to customize their monsters to the max.
The fact that there are only two characters to manage in XIII-2 is a blessing: it's easier to keep track of these characters, max out individual classes, and make choices that will give you better options in battle. Each node on the Cyrstarium gives stat bonuses based on the class you're leveling, and there are a set amount of abilities in each class. When an entire Crystarium level has been filled, which is independent of the classes, a new ability can be chosen, ranging from a better class bonus to a bigger ATB gauge. There's depth in its newfound simplicity, and I applaud Square-Enix for the changes made to the system.
Outside of combat, the gameplay is different from XIII because of the lack of forced linearity, but individual pieces are still awfully similar. There's only one vendor to buy things from - Chocolina - who spouts off terrible dialogue and only has new things to sell at certain points of the story. The Historia Crux (which functions not unlike the White Chronicle from Radiant Historia) provides a modicum of freedom, but most quests still send you from Point A to Point B. The Historia Crux also allows access to quite a few side areas, but that's provided you can get ahold of the Wild Artefacts needed to open up these areas.
Just about all of the environments you can open, characters you can speak to, or monsters you can recruit look great. It's no surprise that this sequel carries the torch well when it comes to its aesthetics, even if that does include subpar voice acting and dialogue. I did notice quite a little bit of slowdown in the Xbox 360 version of the game, though this was somewhat alleviated by installing to the hard drive. The music is hit-or-miss, especially regarding its placement within the game. I found myself listening to the absurd song "Crazy Chocobo" in an area devoid of the absurdly large birds. It was odd, but I still cracked a smile at just how goofy it was.
I find myself oddly pleased with my playtime of Final Fantasy XIII-2. The game isn't long for those who want to just take down the story - perhaps 25 hours at most - but it was a mostly enjoyable experience. Regardless of my issues, I kept playing the game, which is something I can't say about Final Fantasy XIII. If you go into the experience expecting a more traditional JRPG with the FFXIII battle system, you won't be disappointed. It's quirky, it's melodramatic, and it's convoluted, but I couldn't help but crack a smile during much of Final Fantasy XIII-2. It's a guilty pleasure for me - just like Quantum Leap.