Well, I won’t say I’m done with the game, but having finished it and seen 7 of the 10 different endings… I think I’ve played enough to render a verdict for you fine folks. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a very weird game to talk about. It’s a constant swell of contradictions… and a constantly changing yet strangely static experience.
A Past Future, or a Future Passed
Final Fantasy games are typically known for having wild, twisted Japanese stories. Final Fantasy XIII-2 takes that concept to a new extreme by introducing time travel. Time Travel is a very difficult concept to use in a game, and we’ve all seen it done badly so often that we’re probably used to it. But luckily this game actually does a lot of it right. With a focus on making each timeline feel unique and complete on its own, the game never gives you that jarring sense of dislocation that time travel usually does. In stead when you travel to a new region, you’re greeted with a contained world that you have the ability to interact with and effect on a small scale, all while working towards the grand scale goals of fixing things. You see, the story is that following the events of the previous game, something happened to effectively break the timeline. History was altered, events were changing, and things were happening that people couldn’t explain and in many cases couldn’t even remember. Now, expect to get really frustrated with two words: ‘hope’ and ‘paradox’. These words are so overused that it becomes painful. At one point in the game we have the word ‘hope’ being used in 3 different ways in a single sentence, and they use paradox to describe anything ‘wrong’ caused by history being changed. It would’ve been nice to get a bit more detail in stead of just another paradox.
Our main character, Serah, is the sister to the protagonist of Final Fantasy XIII, Lightning. Lightning has disappeared and only Serah remembers seeing her following the events of Final Fantasy XIII and almost nobody believes that she actually saw her, they think she dreamed it. Now Serah is having strange dreams of Lightning fighting in a strange world. Suddenly her new home is under attack by monsters, and a strange man appears just in time to save her. He is our second main character: Noel Kreiss. In fact, he’s the only other playable character, but we’ll get to that a bit later on. Noel Kreiss claims to be from the future, can describe the scene Serah’s been seeing in her dreams with eerie accuracy, and is telling Serah that her sister sent him to get her. After an illogically brief period of doubting him, she goes with him through a time gate and ends up on a journey that quickly changes from ‘let’s go see Lightning’ to ‘let’s fix everyone’s problems’. It’s not until much later that it feels like fixing these problems serves a purpose… initially it really does just feel like you’re just trying to help everyone you come across out of the goodness of your heart which isn’t really a good premise for a story.
While Serah and Noel’s interactions don’t feel feigned and do work quite well, they really end up feeling one-dimensional for over half of the game – it really isn’t until one critical series of scenes in the last quarter of the game that their personalities, motivations, and if I may say it ‘character’ really comes out and you get to know them well. The unfortunate part is that the characters aren’t the only thing that has very little development in the first half of the game – the overall story does as well. You really don’t get much of a sense for the overall events of the game as a whole until nearly half way through as well. Luckily, once you reach that point, they packed a pretty solid story into the remainder of the game, so overall I’d have to say I did like the game’s main story, I just wish it had had a better pacing – 15-20 hours without story is really hard to bear for a gamer like me.
Making it a little bit easier to bear are the little stories you get in each time period and world you visit. They went to a ton of effort to make each time period contain it’s own story arcs and sidequests. These story arcs help to make each time period come to life and feel important, even if they don’t really move the story forward at all. The only real complaint with these short stories is that some of them feel really important only to come to… absolutely nothing once you move on with the game. For example, there’s a big story arc with Serah’s fiancé that feels like it’s going to build to something huge in the main story… until it peters out and you never get resolution on it. They do use the time travel really well in this area, offering a lot of alternate timelines and even more importantly a lot of tangible effects for what you do. One good example is that you fight a boss who seems unkillable and then are forced to retreat, afterwards you can go and change something in a different timeline which prevents that boss from ever becoming that strong to begin with. Things like that help make the time travel really work. They also add a lot of open-ness to the game, giving you a lot of things to do by providing sidequests and motivation to spend time scouring different timelines.
The ending of the game is another contradiction in the truest sense of the word. It starts out looking like a pretty solid ending, with a twist that was both expected and unexpected at the same time… then it ends on a rather final note that makes it feel like there can’t possibly be any more to tell, and then it fades to black and gives you ‘to be continued’. They’ve since announced that the ‘true ending’ will be a part of dlc, which is such a cop-out and really makes the game feel a lot more hollow than it should. We have what could have been a very good penultimate cutscene leading to a good final chapter if only it had been included… but it wasn’t included, so what we have is an ending that makes the game feel both hollow and the ending unsatisfying.
Shifting More Than Time
Normally talking about the battle system would be a small, unimportant, and uninteresting section of an RPG review. Not this time, my friends. Final Fantasy XIII-2 uses a system called the ‘Paradigm Shift’ system to make battles feel engaging, active, and fun. To explain the entire system would be a huge endeavor, but I’ll give a basic overlay here. There are 6 roles that both of your characters can be. These range from damage dealers, tanks, healers, etc. You also have tamable monsters who each have a role as well and you can pick 3 of them to be ‘active’ at any time – these 3 monsters are called your ‘Paradigm Pack’. A ‘Paradigm’ is a set of 1 role for each character and 1 monster from your Pack. You can set up 3 sets of paradigms, each featuring 6 paradigms, and when you go into battle, whichever set of paradigms is active is the one you use for that battle. You can switch between the 6 paradigms in your set at any time, allowing you to react to what you’re facing quickly, and doing so changes all of the abilities you have at your disposal, as well as gives you bonuses depending on what roles you have active. This system makes combat so dynamic and fun that it is some of the most engaging I’ve ever seen in an RPG – possibly in any game. Absolutely stellar marks for combat. My only gripe is that your paradigm pack can only contain 3 monsters, meaning you’re limited in the role that final party slot can be which reduces the variety a bit from what it could have been. However, it is fairly difficult to really use well. It takes a lot of practice, skill, and timing to make the most of the system – which can make the game feel inaccessible for people new to the system. The other side of that is that it makes it feel so incredibly rewarding when you do something amazing. And because of the options available with the system, it is absolutely possible to do some pretty amazing things. One personal example was that I fought a monster way above my level and it took me 85 minutes to finally kill him. If not for the way the paradigm system worked, I could’ve never done it. But by taking full advantage of my paradigm options, I was able to do it and it unbelievably satisfying to finally take him down.
Leveling is done in a very interesting system called the ‘crysarium’ that basically gives you the ability to customize your character to be what you want. Unfortunately, this is another place where the learning curve is steep because mastering the crysarium is not intuitive. You really have to pay attention to everything if you want to get your characters as strong as they can be. Fortunately, however, the difference between ‘absolute ideal’ and ‘I had no idea what I was doing’ isn’t terribly big and as such won’t make you feel like you did something wrong. You receive CP for killing monsters and finding special ‘fragment’ collectible, which can be spent on stat bonuses and abilities in the crysarium. The cost of these gradually increases, and you get to choose which role you want to level at any specific point allowing for early game customization, or late game specialization. Even your tamed monsters have their own crysarium section, fueled by items in stead of cp.
The monster system I mentioned above is really another huge section of the game. When you fight a monster, you have a chance to have that monster join your party. Each monster has its own distinct flair, style, abilities, stats, and role. You can take monsters you’ve leveled and infuse them into other monsters in order to give that monster new abilities or passive bonuses. Some monsters become strong really early, but have a level cap preventing them from scaling further, others have a bit of a weak start but become really good later. Different monsters have different costs to level. And the items you use to level your monsters come in different varieties offering bonuses to different stats. For example, if you have a healer monster who is really squishy, you might consider investing some vitality items into him to boost his health. When you use an item to level a monster they receive a certain preset bonus based off of the monster, their role, and their level – but they also get an extra bonus depending upon the item you use. All told, the monster customization system is more varied and inspired than the entirety of many games. And this is all just for one third of your party. Really a fantastic system for them to use, and one of the most fun and most individualized parts of the game – since no two monsters will be the same based off of your choices.
Take Some Time to Smell the Cactuar
Final Fantasy XIII-2 stands tall with graphics giants like Uncharted 3 and God of War 3 – it’s one of the best looking games I’ve ever seen. Everything from character models to environments to animations is just positively gorgeous. The draw distance allows you to see people way in the distance and environments so far away that you get landscapes that are just breathtaking. The ability effects and monster details are phenomenal. If you can ignore the eccentric dress styles – which is completely typical for a Japanese game and thus barely even worth noting – the characters look fantastic. A few characters have some odd looking run animations, but that is another fairly common thing in anime. Essentially, if you have any appreciation for anime style artwork and animation – you’ll have nothing to complain about regarding graphics in this game. Even if you don’t, you’ll probably find more to love than you will to dislike. If you don’t believe me, go to the Archylte Steppe during a stormy day and stand on the pillar and just look around and tell me that isn’t one of the most breathtaking sights you’ve ever seen. Period.
On the other side of the presentation coin we have the audio. The voice acting is all of very good quality, most of the characters sounded exactly in keeping with the character and personality they had. The sound effects are, for the most part, really good. None of the sound effects were really annoying although some of the monster effects could be a bit disturbing. However, the sound track is really the ‘make or break’ part of the audio section, and Final Fantasy XIII-2 again presents us with a contradiction. Most of the soundtrack is absolutely unbelievable. Some of the tracks in this game rank right up there with 1000 words, Dancing Mad and Aria De Mezza Carraterre in the list of my ‘favourite video game tracks’. Others are less memorable, but still really good… and then you have those few bad apples. Some of the tracks in this game are just bloody awful. I think my ears were bleeding after listening to ‘Crazy Chocobo’ for a few minutes, for example. There aren’t many, and most of them are very brief, but when placed side by side next to amazing tracks like ‘Noel’s Theme – Final Journey’, they just sound appalling.
Localization in this game was not done up to the standard I expect from my games. There were weird references, a lot of statements that just made no sense, a failure to realize that ‘Hope’ is the same word as ‘hope’, and an overuse of words like Paradox. All of which are mistakes that should be caught both by the writers and the localization team, but were missed by both. Highly disappointing. The game also has a ton of ‘replay value’ without actually requiring a replay. They allow you to ‘reset’ time periods to allow you to do them over to get a different result if you want. In addition, as mentioned at the start, there are 8 additional ‘Paradox Endings’ in addition to the core ending, as well as a secret ending that follows the core ending if you’ve done everything. The Paradox Endings offer ‘what if’ possibilities as an alternative. For example, that ‘unkillable’ boss I mentioned earlier – if you go back when you’re much higher level and actually kill him, you get an alternate ending about what would’ve happened if you killed him without weakening him first. There are 8 of these, and they all feature a fair bit of creativity and are well thought out. I’d say one or two of them are actually better than the real ending, which is kind of weird to say. In addition, there are a ton of collectibles called ‘fragments’ to find, which are hidden around the world encouraging exploration and trying different things. The game also featured one of the most annoying things I’ve seen in a long time. At the end of each chapter you’d get a little blurb of someone talking, apparently to nobody, revealing their inner monologue in a way that just got grating and annoying.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 often feels less like an rpg and more like a strategy game with the paradigm system and the way time travel is used. As a result of that, I can see some of the old school final fantasy crowd being a bit turned off by it. The amount of value in this game is huge, with easily 60-100 hours of gameplay if you want to spend the time going for all of the alternate endings. The core game itself gives you about 30-40 hours of gameplay, which is a respectable length for an rpg. And the combat system… I’m not joking when I say it is the most rewarding and enjoyable combat system I’ve seen in an rpg ever. If you haven’t experienced it, buy the game, play for a few hours until you’ve unlocked a few roles for each character and tamed a few monsters and just start experimenting. As a bit of a note, I wrote this review trying to ignore the fact that it came after Final Fantasy XIII – I will be doing an article later today discussing the transition from one to the other given the circumstances of this game’s release it seems to make sense.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a perfect example of ‘you get what you put in’ – give it your all, and I assure you you’ll come out enjoying yourself, despite its numerous flaws.
- Combat ‘Paradigm Shift’ system is absolutely amazing
- Graphics are beyond beautiful.
- Soundtrack is mostly made of really strong tracks and features some new favourites for me
- Voicework is quite good.
- Paradox Endings offer a lot of replayability and some really solid story.
- Crysarium system is interesting.
- Monster taming and leveling system offers near-unlimited individuality and customization.
- Overall the story is quite good.
- Time travel is used fairly well.
- Each time/location feels like unique and well designed.
- Many of the sidestory arcs are quite good and well thought out.
- Game contains a ton of value, with a reasonable core length and a lot of extras to do.
- Serah and Noel do have some good chemistry.
- Ability to ‘reset’ time periods was really cool.
- Has a fairly steep leveling curve.
- Requires DLC to actually see the game’s ending – DLC that is actually not yet available.
- Story is very slow to get going.
- Very little character development happens in the first half or so of the game.
- Localization was not done very well.
- Word ‘paradox’ was way overused, as was ‘hope’.
- Inner monologue segments at the end of chapter were frustrating and awkwardly handled.
- Has some of the worst audio tracks I’ve ever heard.
Written by: Sean