February 1, 2012
From the get-go, Final Fantasy XIII-2 throws players right into the biggest plot point of the game. Lightning, the main character of the last game has somehow been written out of history and has become guardian to the goddess Etro. Players are immediately in control of Lightning after an action-packed cut-scene where she does battle with an ominous looking Caius Ballad, the main baddie of FFXIII-2. In the midst of it all, a strange boy falls through Etro's gate and is tasked by Lightning to search for her sister. Through time. That's right, it's about to get more confusing as players will find themselves jumping through time and solving temporal anomalies aplenty.
Thankfully the narrative is a little bit more coherent than the last outing. Serving as the main motivation for the game's newfound heroes, Serah and Noel will travel through the Historia Crux, time's gateway, in search of Lightning, and unravel the mysteries behind the sudden occurrences of each era's time paradoxes. On the way, they'll cross roads with familiar faces and locales. A nice touch for those that enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII.
That said, the story feels sort of empty and it's difficult to care for the lead characters, Serah especially. While the search for Lightning is an applaudable act, the game tends to focus more on the new guys, Noel, Caius and Yeul. This makes Lightning and Serah's presence feel secondary. On the other hand, the backstory of the three aforementioned characters is certainly an intriguing one, regardless of the many plot holes time travel brings to the table. If that's something you can't get past, however, you'll find yourself questioning a lot of the things they do.
The phrase, "change the future and you change the past" makes no sense in temporal theory, unless the parallel timeline that splits off somehow magically creates a separate past. However, that's getting a bit too technical. For the story's sake, if changing the future changes the past such that events are entirely different from the original memory, Noel and Serah's carefree attitude to time travelling should be brought into question. On the flip side, it's absolutely curious in regards to Lightning and Caius' presence in the timeline and that serves as a proper plot point worth exploring.
The characters themselves have their highs and lows, and are almost polar opposites of each other in terms of writing. Noel's been written quite well and, despite initial impressions, is a very likeable character. Serah, on the other hand, feels like a forced cog and a narrative device that's there only to support Noel. Needless to say, Caius' motivations demand interest, but Yeul feels robotic despite her relatively important role in the grand scheme of things. The actors' performances aren't helped by the occasional amount of cheesy animations and body language. For the most part, it's a trip to see these characters react to their surroundings and circumstances and the overall narrative is interesting enough to keep pushing forward. Or back, depending on which era you're visiting next.
Where FFXIII-2 falls short in terms of narrative, it excels in extremely polished gameplay. Players can swap between the two lead characters at any point in the game, in and outside of battle. The game can also be saved anywhere on the map or in the Historia Crux. Maps are much larger and labyrinthian in design. Traversing between towns and into hostile areas is seamless, and each area is populated with NPCs that you can talk to or help in the form of side-quests. Some of these sidequests can be easily completed within the same area, but others will require you to travel to other time periods or fulfill certain conditions before they can be completed.
The core of the battle system returns in the exact same form plus some icing. Serah and Noel start out as only a duo, but in due time are able to recruit monsters to form the third member of their party. Managing monsters is as simple as managing your characters. They can be upgraded through a feature called Infusion, which combines a child monster into the parent one which then inherits the available passive abilities. The Crystarium returns too, albeit in a slightly different form. There is only a single grid per character or monster and there is no level cap. Players can freely mix and match class stats and passives in a more streamlined system.
In addition, certain battles will feature quick time events known as Action Cinematics. You'll have to hit the corresponding buttons, or even choose between two, which then directly affects the outcome of the QTE. Monsters have a team skill called Feral Link which, once built up, acts like a monster's limit break. Monsters no longer roam the map, instead encounters are semi-random. A ring, called the Mog Clock, will appear when you encounter a random battle, which then counts down, giving you the time to strike preemptively or to run away. It does however get relatively annoying when you encounter enemies that move faster than you.
Character progression is a fairly simple affair. You earn Crystogen, points in battle, that you spend on nodes in the Crystarium. The larger the node, the higher the increase in stats. These stats also depend on what class you're upgrading. Sentinels gain more health points while Commandos receive higher boosts in strength. As such, you can easily craft a character that's, say, a beefy mage. Skills and spells are now attributed to each respective class' levels. Take this for instance, Noel is currently a level 3 Commando and a level 1 Ravager, at Commando level 5, he learns the attack Blitz; however, Ravager will not increase in level nor will you learn its next spell unless you specifically choose to upgrade it and reach the designated level. It's a pretty deep system, despite its new streamlined appearance.
FFXIII-2 will no longer have you traverse a corridor to the next point of interest. Instead, players will gain access to the main hub of activity: the Historia Crux. From here, you can choose when and where to visit. Unlocking time gates will open up more areas to explore. There is a certain amount of freedom in this system in that you can visit whatever areas are available whenever you like. However, if you've unlocked an area that's not necessarily in pace with the story, you'll come across enemies that are too overwhelming, forcing you to turn back and check someplace else. It's not a new mechanic by any means and has been used in a number of FFXIII-2's contemporaries such as Skyrim and Dark Souls. The best part of it all is that your progress within a certain is saved and frozen when you retreat to the Historia Crux, allowing you to continue from where you left off.
The game also introduces a number of minigames that Serah and Noel will encounter in their journey. These temporal anomalies range from simple brain teasers to puzzles that require a fair amount of thinking. They aren't necessarily fun per se, but at least make sense in the world and aren't too difficult to complete. On top of that, you'll stumble across a casino world reminiscent of the Gold Saucer in Final Fantasy VII, where you can participate in a number of gambling deeds such as cards, slot machines and betting on chocobo races.
The gameplay, in essence, is generally a fun experience. It's addicting to hunt for monsters, infuse them or even customize them with little doohickies. The battle system is still as strategic and fast paced as ever while the Crystarium remains fairly flexible in the way you can develop your characters. Sidequests and minigames offer a bit respite from the drudge of saving the future – and the many plot holes that follow time travelling.
Visually, the game looks great, especially when it comes to the characters' faces. Their hands on the other hand, look like they're comprised of little stubby sausages. Environments are large and the backdrops breathtaking. Academia provides the illusion of a massive city despite restrictions on where you can actually step foot. FFXIII-2 also features weather effects, a nice touch that adds to the immersion of the world. Snow will fall on characters, leaving their heads and shoulders white with snowflakes, while raindrops will slide off the camera. Weather also affects the types of monsters you'll encounter in certain areas. Night and darkness will call forth a behemoth in the Yaschas Massif while a stormy climate will attract stronger monsters in the Archylte Steppe.
As mentioned earlier, the voice performances aren't necessarily bad. In fact, they've been executed quite well. But when combined with the understandably Japanese-like body language, it comes off as very cheesy. For example, there is literally one moment in the game where Serah faints while holding her hands to her cheeks. It's simply hilarious. These are just some low points in an otherwise well-performed and directed script. Caius is a badass as the game's antagonist while Lightning hides a hint of melancholy in her voice.
The worst of all in terms of presentation is the soundtrack. Not that the entirety of it is terrible, just a surprising amount of it is, especially when Final Fantasy is well-known for amazing scores. There is simply no rhyme or reason to have a heavy metal track or rap in this kind of lore as it comes across as a very jarring experience that breaks the immersion. On the other hand, there are some really beautiful and powerful tracks that are befitting of the world. The battle with Caius is intense and quite haunting while the score when fighting in Academia gives a sense of distress and desperation.
Overall, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is still a good experience. Despite its shortcomings in the narrative, it does a lot of things right in terms of gameplay. More importantly, it's fun. The gameplay is very polished and you won't find any game-breaking bugs or glitches here, something that can't be said for a lot of other games. If you can look past the plot holes then you'll find yourself with an experience that is both fun and rewarding.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 was reviewed on the PS3. You can read more about GamingUnion.net's scoring policy here.