Final Fantasy XIII-2

Final Fantasy tries to give its fans what they missed and complained about in previous chapters, while still following its perennial dogma of always trying to reinvent itself. Each episode of FF13-2 is announced with a sort of augmented reality-themed overlay, a motif which has been popular in TV series for a decade.

What’s more, pushing a button to jump over objects, one of the oldest tricks in the book, humorously tenders itself as an innovation. Granted, the user interface in battle is more polished and refined than FF13. Elements overall look crispier.

But it’s evident that letters don’t scale very well at higher resolutions. The battle system is familiar if you have played the first game in this trilogy, but with a simple design variation that’s somehow a twist.

As this adventure follows just two main characters, Serah and Noel, the developers needed to find a solution to fill the typical third slot of your party. This time, the monsters you beat just might end up in your personal roster. You can include three in your Paradigm Deck at a time and then select from these to complete a Paradigm during combat.

While your human characters can switch between any of the six roles in the Paradigm system, each monster has only one specific role. It’s a design choice that looks different but functions exactly the same (with the same combinations) as the FF13 system.

Monsters have different curves of improvement. To take full advantage of them, you have to rely on items to boost their levels. It’s a grinding element that requires many hours if you decide to go for the rarest or strongest of them, especially since doing so might call for enough imagination to throw Mog into a specific bush.

The Crystarium is still the system used to progress through the skill tree. It’s more a river than a tree, a fact that FF13 ineptly tried to hide, even though it’s explicit that you’re following a straight line. You just have to choose which class to level up in.

Not exactly a satisfying system for customization lovers, and one clearly lacking in creativity and depth. The weapons available are once again very limited, and together with accessories, their improvement is still item-based.

On screen, Final Fantasy 13-2 begins by throwing unexpected features your way like Cinematic Action scenes and multiple responses to choose from in dialogue. Aside from affording you access to a pair of items, the latter doesn’t affect the narrative at all, though it does manage to pique your interest at times.

The story would have been an out-of-control spiral, even more so than SquareEnix has already approved, if your choices had any major impact in-game. When one of the new protagonists is introduced with a fall from the sky, you may start to wonder if you’ll being playing as Sora in a Kingdom Hearts game. It’s a premonitory sign, a bad sign, of the direction everything is going to take from then on.

Serah can’t defend herself and clumsily falls to the ground, yet only a few seconds later is fully able to assault enemies with arrows and spells. Which btw, given the lore of FF13, should probably not be possible. But oh well, she has to start somewhere.

Players demand exploration, an opportunity 13-2 supplies by visiting different sections of the Final Fantasy 13 universe across multiple timelines – a universe that, in this second chapter, has been unfortunately and miserably squandered.

Sequels have never been a winning horse (or even a winning Chocobo) for SquareEnix. It’s like developers consider them more experimental than the iconic main chapters of Final Fantasy. Discovering the real identity of the omnipresent shopper Chocolina is insane, and makes you wonder if the game’s aggregate weirdness and humor has transcended to the level of trolling.

And we’re talking Tidus’s-not-so-known-real-fate-after-the-FF10-2.5-novella-tier trolling. The story motivates you to find Fragments and open Time Gates. As you progress through the game, your movements are tracked via the Historia Crux, a hub that allows you to jump between different areas (and times), cutting out useless travel – which is nice, even if the loading time is quite noticeable.

Towns are filled with NPCs that you can interact with to trigger side quests and missions. Though, regrettably these are far from sufficient when it comes to offering you any meaningful knowledge of the beautiful world of Final Fantasy 13. That said, a clear effort has been made to lend credibility to the crowd. If you throw Mog in public, people’s reactions are bound to make you smile.

And for those who enjoy slap-stick comedy, there are many instances of kids tripping and falling to the ground. In the initial phase of the game, players are introduced to some puzzles. But, as with the Cinematic Actions and Live Triggers, they’re soon forgotten, making a massive comeback only near the end of game. These challenges are so unbalanced in the way they’ve been deployed that a huge number of them need to be solved in a single prolonged session.

Interesting at first, they eventually turn nightmarish, despite being remarkably striking. The soundtrack meets Final Fantasy’s routinely high standards, being on par with, if not better than, all its other chapters. “Unseen Abyss” challenges and overtakes “One-Winged Angel” as the franchise’s most iconic boss theme. Bundled with the battle system and the irreverent pose of the final boss, it’s successful in defining the game’s utmost moment of confrontation.

It’s the second time Masashi Hamauzu has led the charge on musical scoring, confirming his caliber to be among the likes of Nobuo Uematsu. Meanwhile, the rock flavor is attributable to Naoshi Mizuta – it’s no coincidence you might find similar sounds in Street Fighter Alpha and Parasite Eve 2.

A good many of the game’s tracks feature vocalists, which is quite unusual for pieces being applied in gameplay and cutscenes. Nice to have during wandering or grinding sessions, but definitely less welcome when characters are having a chat.

In keeping with 13-2’s sense of humor and experimentation, hardcore metal tracks are leveraged to play with the audience and juxtapose the mystic aura that encompasses the story and the franchise at large. It’s a researched, oxymoronic element.

Take the noteworthy Chocobo Song, obviously begging to be played amid a very abandoned city shrouded in mist, during a cutscene in which the two main characters solitarily converse about serious matters. Yes, you know just which Chocobo Song. The one that instead manages to fit perfectly when the bird gets stuck for no reason.

With that out of the way, it’s time now to talk about the lack of quality control and how it merges with the game’s non-linear format to create a synergistic calamity. Depending on which fragments you find and which gates you open, you’ll be allowed to visit certain areas in time and space.

However, by the end of the third chapter if you don’t assimilate the game well, searching every corner, you might find yourself stuck and unable to proceed. Collecting all 160 fragments is not required for the base game. While completing ancillary tasks does earn you alternate endings and paradoxes, these are sadly cheap giveaways that allow the writers to justify events and usher on the story’s end with convoluted nonsense.

The moment you start playing with time travel, you automatically step into a mine field. In this case, the mine field blows up, especially considering that technology, devices, recordings, and visions make zero sense in terms of how they are represented and why they exist.

Every prophecy is vapidly convenient, and sometimes they aren’t even needed. Players are constantly exposed to minor, useless events that resolve just around the next corner, as if to throw them a bone. What the developers didn’t realize is that great gameplay is not about making a million little additions; it’s about crafting a consistent environment others can connect with, not to mention dialogue that makes sense.

Instead, we have rules that apply to some but not to others with no logic whatsoever. There’s no reason why Serah should be able to travel though gates while somebody else can’t; no reason for Noel to suspiciously hide what he knows; no reason for someone in the future to be able to change something in the past and then not be able to do so again later on.

Connecting the dots makes you realize just how much the writers botched it with FF13’s lore. In 13-2, everything players have learned up to this point loses coherence. And it’s particularly difficult to accept how Lightning’s character has evolved off screen. The new villain, Caius, manages to earn some points by the end, as he has time to show his personality.

But it won’t take long before his plan starts to sound ridiculously silly, being moved more by a personal obsession he could have easily worked through by himself in few seconds than an epic, conspiratorial plan. The whole plot is nothing but a glorified heap of spaghetti with events arranged along the way.

Changes can be detected in 13-2’s art design. The monsters, for one, have a less industrial and imposing look. Instead, they’ve been downsized and illustrated to look more playful, with different contrast and color associations than in the previous game. Happily, these traits prove to be deceiving; within a short number of encounters, you learn they are actually powerful endgame forces that you’ll have to get back to after the rest of the story.

The technical side of the game renders everything even more oblivious. If Final Fantasy 13 was debatable because of porting, this sequel is, without discussion, unacceptable. You’d expect a repeat location from the previous game to be upgraded, not duller and less inspired, as is woefully the case. Serah and Chocobo’s models are amazing in different shots but the frame rate jolts like a heartbeat for no reason and the game engine evidently loses it on various occasions.

The first time it rains, you can appreciate the amount of it you see and the effect it creates on the ground, but it still looks sketchy. The reason for this is that developers applied the wrong translucency value, a thing you have to manually patch yourself if you want it to translate properly.

The final blow is the instability behind simply being able to run the game. As a new scene starts, the game quits itself. Try again from the same spot? It’s a no-go. The culprit is one of the executables having been inappropriately compiled with only 2 gigs of virtual memory available. To cope, the average user has to recognize this and manually solve it.

It’s very difficult to give praise with all these deficiencies. Accordingly, Final Fantasy 13-2 falls better under the category of testbed, even if one wishes to ignore some of its technical aspects. At least the ending isn’t a cliché. Just like this video, it’s good but sad.