Final Fantasy XIII-2 Review
An in-depth look with screenshots and gameplay footage.
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Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a follow-up to 2010's Final Fantasy XIII. It's the second time Square Enix has followed up a main series entrance with a direct sequel, though XIII-2 is much more of a typical sequel than the fanciful Final Fantasy X-2. Beginning three years after the events of XIII, XIII-2 puts the player in control of Serah, the sister of the protaganist from the first game. Alongside Serah is Noel Kreiss, a time-traveling adventurer whose goal is to help stop Caius Ballad and rescue Lightning. With a tweaked leveling system, the ability to recruit monsters to fight in your party, and an enhanced version of the battle system from Final Fantasy XIII, the sequel looks to make up for some of the mistakes of the first game, while drawing the story closer to a conclusion.
This review is based on roughly 65 hours of gameplay with Final Fantasy XIII-2, while utilizing the collector's edition strategy guide. This review was written after fully leveling both main characters as well as a few dozen monsters, and beating the game and seeing all endings. This review does not yet cover any of the downloadable content available for Final Fantasy XIII-2.
The critical reception of Final Fantasy XIII (which is to say, that it was considered a very beautiful hallway simulator) was clearly heard, with Final Fantasy XIII-2 offering slightly more open gameplay. There's still no world map to traverse, but Final Fantasy XIII-2 does provide a less linear experience, letting players move through parts of the story at will. When moving around various maps, enemies randomly spawn, but utilizing the game's "Mog Clock" functionality lets you run away from many fights if you wish.
Returning from the first game is the paradigm battle system, which has you take a party of your two main characters into battle along with an optional monster companion. Winning battles yields the usual Final Fantasy bounty of gil and experience, with experience being tracked by the same crystarium points system as the first game. You can then spend these crystarium points to add a level to one of the six possible player roles, commando, ravager, sentinel, saboteur, synergist, and medic. Each role has its own benefits and abilities, and you can level each role to a maximum of level 99.
The battle system this time is much more open, with the game only rarely forcing you to use a particular character or set of characters. The best addition is the use of monster companions; when you defeat enemies, there's a certain percentage that a copy of that monster will join you in the form of a crystal. You can have any number of these monster crystals in your possession (and level them up at will), but only three can come into battle at a time, letting you shuffle between them as the fight dictates.
For all of Final Fantasy XIII's faults, the battle system is not among them. While forcing you into using specific combinations of characters was often frustrating, the interaction of various paradigm roles provided a level of strategy that creatively balanced the importance of in-battle management and pre-battle preparation. This system returns in XIII-2, but instead of several characters having access to only a few select roles, your two main characters merely unlock roles as they level up.
Battles begin in XIII-2 with enemies randomly spawning on the map within your vicinity, though some just appear on the map constantly as they did in XIII. When this happens, your flying companion Mog (when he's available) will provide a countdown clock that changes from green to red. You can decide to fight or (if possible) run away at this point. If you attack the enemy during this countdown, you'll automatically begin the battle with a pre-emptive strike. While this isn't possible in every fight, that pre-emptive strike will allow you to survive long, tough fights and finish the easy fights much faster.
Finishing fights off quicker will have several ancillary benefits, with the same five-star victory rating system that appeared in Final Fantasy XIII. Getting five stars in a battle will improve the drop rate of rare items, which becomes very important in leveling up your monster companions—the most crucial (and fun) aspect of the game. Careful planning of which monsters to bring in and which roles to assign Serah and Noel prior to the battle are keys to winning the tougher fights in the game.
The monster companion system lets you recruit just about every normal enemy in the game, with each monster having a set rate at which, when defeated, they'll join your party. This rate is often 20% or lower (as low as 2% for some), meaning you sometimes have to devote a good chunk of time hunting a specific monster to round out your party. Each monster has a single paradigm role that it will utilize. You can use one monster companion at a time, but up to three can follow you into a fight. That, combined with Serah and Noel's ability to utilize any of the paradigm roles in the game (when fully leveled), offers an unlimited combination of paradigms that can be used to take down your enemies.
Unlike Serah and Noel, however, your monster companions don't gain experience by winning fights. Instead, you choose to level them up at will by giving them specific items called monster materials. Monsters are basically split into two types—mechanical and organic—with each type requiring different items to level up. Levels are gained one at a time, but monsters don't get more powerful at the same rate.
Some max out as early as level 30, and others able to level all the way to level 99. Those monsters that can get to level 99 are often called "late bloomers"; they generally have weak stats until level 60, at which point they become very powerful. Other monsters have a hard cap at level 30, but their stats rise very quickly. They won't be as good as the late bloomers, but early in the game they'll provide a formidable piece of your party.
Monster Recruiting and Collecting
Monster recruiting and developing is the most fun part of the game, in our opinion, but the monster material leveling system (instead of an experience-based system) means all it takes is some well-timed grinding to collect the right items. Have enough of the right class of items and that late bloomer you just recruited can go from level 1 to 99 in a minute flat. With some monsters only available until later in the game, this reduces the amount of grinding required, but it also means that recruiting the right monster means you can have an incredibly powerful monster that will end most fights inside of 10 seconds after just a couple hours of grinding at the right times.
Also important is the ability to imbue monsters with specific abilities. Every monster has a pre-determined set of abilities that unlock when they reach certain levels, regardless of the items used to level them up. These abilities can often be transferred to other monsters, though it destroys the original monster in the process. There are certain abilities that cannot be transferred, noted with a red lock symbol in that monster's profile. This makes strong monsters with powerful innate abilities very valuable, as there are some very useful abilities that cannot be transferred at all.
Serah and Noel make use of a crystarium that is similar to the leveling mechanic from Final Fantasy XIII, though it's designed to allow you to emphasize their strongest roles, unlocking others later. You gain crystarium points for defeating enemies, moving the story along, and collecting fragments. The crystarium is organized into nodes, large and small, in the shape of a constellation, with the entire constellation broken up into different stages.
Each node costs a specific amount of crystarium points, a number which increases as you go, regardless of what role you're investing in. This means that the 200th node will cost the same amount of CP for two different players, regardless of whether they've leveled up several roles equally, or merely focused on leveling only two or three.
Whenever you activate a large node, you'll receive an extra stat bonus that changes depending on which role you're developing. So for Noel, you'll want to level the commando and sabateur roles with large nodes, as you get bonuses to strength. This isn't made totally clear by the game, but it's an important aspect of getting the most out of your two permanent characters.
After you've filled out all the nodes on a particular crystarium stage, your character will move onto the next one, and you'll be able to select a bonus attribute. Depending on which roles you invested in, you may get different options for bonuses. These can vary from being able to add additional active time battle segments (letting you perform more complicated actions per turn), to getting a bonus towards a particular role's effectiveness. If you max out the entire crystarium, you'll receive all the available role bonuses. Note: Noel and Serah have a natural emphasis on magic and strength stats, respectively, so using the large nodes to level up roles that enhance those (ravager for Serah and Commando for Noel) will yield stronger final characters.
The controls in Final Fantasy XIII-2 are very responsive, with timed button presses used for cutscenes, both when finishing battles and at the end of specific chapters. The most common point at which responsive controls matter is when your monsters utilize their "feral link" abilities. These are basically like limit breaks from earlier Final Fantasy games, where a monster can unleash a specific attack after waiting a specific period of time, except they aid in recruiting the monsters you are fighting. Each monster has one feral link ability that has a specific control input once activated. The control input has no impact on the damage caused by the attack, but if you input the commands fast enough (usually just by memorizing them), you can get up to 300% improvement in the likelihood of recruiting that monster. While this is purely anecdotal, feral links seem to have the most effect when they are utilized as a finishing blow for that monster.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is actually among the easiest, least time-consuming games in the series. We found completing the main storyline, recruiting several of the best monsters (non-DLC) in the game, producing a championship-winning racing chocobo, and leveling both main characters and those monsters to their maximum points took no more than around 50 hours. While this involved a fair amount of grinding, we imagine the ease of this game will not result in a high replay value for most players.
Square Enix is, however, enhancing the Final Fantasy XIII-2 storyline with optional DLC. For a price, you can purchase costumes, take on powerful foes in a coliseum trapped in time, or recruit some special friends from the XIII to fight alongside you. We found the DLC to be a fun extra once you've chewed through the content provided on the disc, and each piece enhances the normal single player by providing a bonus, usually in the form of another companion character.
Pacing & Flow
Since Final Fantasy X, the series has generally preferred to push players along a fairly linear path. We would compare Final Fantasy XIII-2 most closely to XII in this regard. The game does prod you in certain directions, though it gives you the option of tackling other, higher-level areas rather quickly.
The one thing that does tend to hinder the flow of the game is the lack of a worldmap, with the main players entering the flow of time via the "historia crux," which is essentially just a glorified menu of places and times you can visit. This does have the effect of putting the player into a lull, and it's easy to get sidetracked and forget where you were supposed to go next. While this can be annoying when it happens, it stands in stark contrast to the first game, where you often had little choice where you wanted to go next, unless you wanted to backtrack to places you'd already been.
As with other Final Fantasy games, there isn't really much in the way of adaptive enemy AI, as there's rarely a need for it. Enemies in battle, though, tend to have specific patterns of abilities that they stick to, making certain tough enemies easier than they should be. This won't be uncommon to anyone who has played a Final Fantasy game before, but where a human player would clearly press their advantage, the enemy AI is often content to sit back and stick to a set pattern that often leads to defeat.
We should note that this also applies to computer-controlled characters fighting on your side, which can occasionally be a pain. For example, a monster synergist (a paradigm role that applies buffs) may often resort to casting buffs that are not the most beneficial, simply because they're in their inventory. As a result, it's often most beneficial to take monsters of this type and limit their abilities to just the ones you want (in this case, faith and bravery), so that they don't waste their time casting buffs you don't need.
While we won't spoil anything in the plot for Final Fantasy XIII-2, we will assume here that you've played (or are at least familiar with the story of) Final Fantasy XIII. In XIII-2, the story picks up with Lightning's sister, Serah. Serah eventually meets up with Noel Kreiss, a time traveling guardian from the future. The two have been tasked with finding a way to stop Caius Ballad, a man from Noel's time in the future who wants to save a seeress they were both tasked with protecting. Unfortunately, he wants to do this by obliterating the entire timeline. Bad mojo. While the end point motivations for all the characters are, for the most part, made clear, what's never really clear is how they're going to accomplish them. The result is a muddled story where characters seem to just blunder forward through time, changing the timeline and hoping for the best.
As with Final Fantasy X-2, the story is a pretty odd pivot away from the events of the first game. The main characters seem to all just be totally cool with the idea that these guys can just zip around the timeline with minimal consequence, despite the fact that time travel plays almost no role in the first game. It's an incredibly odd dynamic to introduce into the game, especially as it raises serious questions about the actions of characters in the first game. If you're ever writing a sequel and feel the need to introduce time travel to try and fix events from the first installment, just stop and start over. The time travel paradigm is implemented in such a confusingly complex manner that fans of older Final Fantasy games will be left praying for a meteor to come out of nowhere just to simplify everything.
The writing in Final Fantasy XIII-2 is, quite simply, going to drive some people completely up a wall. While the main issue in the first game was the fact that half the major players had nearly identical names, XIII-2 ups the ante by placing two characters in an incredibly unnatural situation (time traveling), with them approaching it like it's the most natural thing in the world. This becomes a common thread throughout the game, with outrageous events happening while Serah and Noel respond like it's only natural.
For example, when a character from XIII shows up 300 years in the future, he isn't really pressed how he managed to travel through time (something that is pretty expressly indicated as the sole province of our two protagonists). It's this lack of logical continuity that is the most frustrating, as your two main characters don't seem bothered by the lack of explanation for anything around them.
Plot & Player Choices
Like most RPGs, the plot of Final Fantasy XIII-2 entails getting swept up into larger events, defeating bosses at specific points in order to advance. There aren't really any choices that the player can make that will actually impact the outcome of the plot, though the end of the story does allow you to push the final cutscenes in one direction or another. As with Final Fantasy XIII, the story dictates most of the action in the game, though there are certain areas that you can explore at your leisure.
You pick up the game in control of Lightning, fighting with Caius Ballad (the main antagonist) in the world of Valhalla. This is primarily a short tutorial, as you're quickly put in control of Serah and Noel, three years after the events of the first game. Serah's main drive is to find and rescue Lightning, fearing that she's trapped in Valhalla forever. Noel was the last human alive on the planet, tasked (along with Caius) with protecting the seeress Yeul, a being that can see the timeline at the expense of her own life. Both want to alter the timeline so that Noel's desolate future doesn't come to pass, while Caius has his own goals, trying to protect Yeul any way that he can.
The story isn't really any more coherent than the one from Final Fantasy XIII, but the motivations of the three main characters are made very clear. We'd definitely give high marks to the work done with Caius, as he's a much more memorable antagonist than Barthandelus from the first game. Despite this, we feel the story of XIII-2 still lacks the crucial elements that made earlier Final Fantasy games engaging.
The story quickly ramps up in terms of complexity, dropping in head-splitting nuggets like "If you change the future, you change the past," without any real explanation. Worse, Noel and Serah act as though these things make total sense, and don't seem interested in pressing the issue. This creates a serious narrative disconnect, with the player left befuddled by another complex concept, with no protaganist to share their feelings or demand an explanation. Without any character to identify with, the player is left confused and emotionally rudderless. The result is the player empathizes more with the villain than anyone else, and the final act feels hollow and unfulfilling as a result.
While the story in XIII-2 is still a bit of a mess, the English voice acting (for the most part) isn't bad. As with XIII, it seems the days of dreadful localization (at least as regards voice acting) are behind the Final Fantasy series. We weren't fans of the narration elements of the game, with Lightning (Serah's sister) discussing the elements of the story from an omniscient viewpoint. That's not bad in and of itself, but the script for these narrations is incredibly stilted, trying to import a dramatic tension with some of the most wooden dialogue you'll hear in a videogame. Ali Hillis, the voice actor for the character Lightning, deserves an award for being able to deliver lines like "Life and death lose all meaning under the rolling waves of chaos" with a straight face.
The cinematics in Final Fantasy XIII-2 are, as you'd expect from a Final Fantasy game, outstanding. The full measure of modern consoles is on display, with Square Enix wasting no time in showing off just how good they are at these sequences. The sequences are not simply movies to watch, often making the player complete timed button presses in order to complete a particularly impressive finishing flourish. The use of timed button presses keeps the player involved, though none of the cinematics are so long that you might lose interest anyway.
Graphics & Atmosphere Overview
The world of Final Fantasy XIII-2 takes you into some pretty wild places, often at different points in the timeline, giving them a different feel entirely. The atmosphere of Final Fantasy XIII-2 is darker than the original game, with the main characters working to evade a future where humans slowly die out after Cocoon, the futuristic paradise in the sky from the first game, crashes into the planet. The story certainly takes a darker turn after the events of the original, though with the focus of the game moving from Cocoon to Pulse, the color palette of the game is much more vibrant, often in opposition to the tone of the story.
The art design in XIII-2 is just as it was in the original, with a futuristic feel of the cities counterpointing the more wild, natural environments of planet itself. Despite often visiting the same locations multiple points across the timeline, the developers do a good job of employing light and dark to give each location a unique feel. For example, one location exists at a point where the whole world has been thrown into a constant eclipse. The only way to avoid fighting high-level opponents is to stay in the light of searchlamps that have been set up. It's an interesting dynamic and it moves beyond the simple random battle elements of the rest of the game.
The Crystal Tools engine is on full display in this game, with the graphics on the same level as XIII despite a much shorter development cycle. Animations look very fluid during battle, with hair, cloth, and water physics all appearing quite realistic. Of course these physics are used to drive the action of some pretty wild character and monster designs, but that's Final Fantasy for you. While there's definitely some assets from XIII that are re-used or at least redone in the same style, the rapid turnover from XIII to XIII-2 shows that the Crystal Tools engine must be extremely well-designed. If the game looks this good and truly took just 18 months to develop, you have to wonder how much longer it'll take for Square Enix to knock out a Final Fantasy XIII-3 or XV.
The music for Final Fantasy XIII-2 is right in line with XIII (sharing many of the same tracks), though the soundtrack definitely has some significant highs and putrid lows. We love the usual battle theme and the ambient music in most areas, but there's a couple of songs that have a metal-ish gravely voice over the music that has the unexpected benefit of making you want to finish the battle as soon as possible so you can get it out of your head. That said, we have to reserve special praise for the theme of the main antagonist, Caius, who has one of the best enemy themes in a modern Final Fantasy game. While the soundtrack doesn't begin to touch the heights that Final Fantasy X hit with its music, XIII-2 improves on XIII in subtle ways, with Caius' theme a real treat.
Final Fantasy fanatics don't want much from their Final Fantasy games, but some traditional RPG tropes like chocobos, towns, and open world gameplay are certainly among them. When Final Fantasy XIII was released, people immediately noticed that it was extremely linear, giving the player almost nothing to do but go forward and advance the story down a set path. While this was a trend that had been creeping into Final Fantasy games since the tenth installment, it was done to a degree that seemed to sit in stark contrast to the relative open feel of the previous entries in the series.
It's clear that those criticisms struck a chord with Square Enix, because XIII-2 sees the return of towns, more open world gameplay, minigames, and some elements that are included to appeal to the Final Fantasy fans who felt turned off by the first game. Still, XIII-2 doesn't totally abandon the work done by XIII, with a battle system that further refines what might be the best seen in a Final Fantasy game to date. There are more active time battle elements, and you are no longer forced into using specific paradigms in combat, giving you the ability to play as you wish almost from the beginning.
That level of freedom is only further enhanced by the ability to recruit monsters to fight alongside your heroes, reminiscent of Dragon Quest games that employed a similar tactic. This introduces a collectable aspect to combat, and it's natural to try and go out and find the best monsters possible to fight along with you. Combine that with a rather freeform leveling system that lets you prioritize any of several paradigm roles for the two main characters, and you have a fast-paced, intricate, and complex battle system that's rewarding through most of the game.
The main issue we had with the gameplay is simply how easy it is to become drastically overpowered. After 50 hours with the game (with the aid of the collector's edition strategy guide), both main characters and about a dozen monster companions had been leveled to maximum. In truth, the challenge of the game seemed to evaporate after just 15-20 hours—far sooner than in most RPGs. As such, your characters feel more like benevolent tourists through much of the game, with only one optional enemy giving our party even a hint of trouble.
The story itself was maddeningly complex, though that is redeemed somewhat by solid acting. Our main complaint is that the story deals with incredibly complex ideas like time travel, and yet the protagonists don't seem troubled by these at all. Worse, while the motivations for Noel Kreiss and Serah are obvious, they never really seem to have a clear understanding of how to accomplish those goals. This creates a disconnect between the player and the character that never really abates. Even as the story draws to a close, the player is left confused about the consequences (and the finality) of their actions.
Overall, we found Final Fantasy XIII-2 to be an enjoyable jaunt in the universe established in Final Fantasy XIII. It doesn't really do much to close up the loose ends of the first game, but it works hard to make up for many of the elements of XIII that irked longtime fans of the series. It's got a spectacular battle system that deserves a more coherent, engaging plot. It's also a little short by Final Fantasy standards, but Final Fantasy fans and those who enjoyed the first game will also enjoy its sequel. For $60, those who hated XIII may want to simply stay away, but we'd encourage the ambivalent to give it a shot.