Final Fantasy is a name that's lost its former glory. After such shaky outings as Final Fantasy XII and XIII, and that one numbered online game, the series of titles haven't had the fiery following that any prior release of the same name has had. This inconsistent delivery of games almost makes the name change from Squaresoft to Square-Enix seem like a foreshadowing to something even diligent fans would have to justify with extreme exaggeration. SE has declared that it's intent on changing the standard with the newly-released Final Fantasy XIII-2 by appealing to a wider demographic while properly appeasing the die-hard fans.
The story kicks off three years after the events of Final Fantasy XIII, and SE chose to use Serah as the main protagonist. I can't say that the move is unjustifiable, but after having control of characters like Lightning, Fang, and Snow, Serah doesn't seem quite as interesting; or as dynamic. After a plethora of strange events, Serah happens across a man named Noel, who hails from the future with omens of world's end. He convinces her to come with him through time to find her sister, who strangely went missing immediately after the orbiting planet called Cocoon had nearly fallen to Gran Pulse at the end of XIII.
I came across a couple of frustrating elements in this game. The first is that everything is explained simply as a “Paradox” and no other explanation is used for a long while. It's kind of a little particular, but I'm sure that trying to explain the physics of time travel and its potential paradoxes would either contradict the point or convolute the story too much to let players care about the happenings within the game. The other frustration comes near the end of the game, but I want to keep it as vague as possible: the final chapter is filled with subtext and ties to the first game, but the gameplay changes drastically, for the worst. It was a very harsh block and a hefty risk to take. The concept makes sense after looking at it, but it was terrible for overall flow.
While on the subject of the story, a lot of the plot is very slow moving and somewhat irrelevant to the overall task at hand, that being the search for Lightning who's in Valhalla. The frustrations posted above really articulate the issue with the story experience. I easily forgave it when the answers started coming, but that last chapter really felt like a massive hinderance, which was very unfortunate.
The controversial combat system has been both hastened and modified. Monsters encountered and defeated in combat can be tamed for use in combat, which is meant to be similar to Eidolons in XIII and to allot three characters in a party. This Monster Hunter/Pokemon-inspired feature is somewhat limited, since most monsters through the beginning of the game are only Commandos, Medics, or Ravagers; and never more than one Role per monster, unlike Noel or Serah. Point being, benefits (stat boosts from the Synergist) or hinderances (like stat reductions from the Saboteur) can really only be done by Serah or Noel until rarer monsters can be found later in the game. It's a bit inconvenient for die-hard fans, since XIII almost required a third of the available party members to have either a Saboteur or a Synergist Role at the ready. However, these two Roles aren't very crucial for most of the game, which is also a bit unfortunate. Right around my 19 hour, I was flying through fights without much of a challenge that couldn't be fixed by a quick and simple Paradigm Shift that consisted mostly of commandos and ravagers anyway.
In addition to all of that, monsters that are collected can be “infused,” so that passive combat abilities and resistances can be given to monsters you actually like. It feels like an option that replaces gear, which seems very appropriate and effective. Though, it was a bit overpowering to apply about 12 monsters to my Sentinel so it could have beefy stats.
The combat experience can't be done without a leveling system, and the Crystarium influenced by the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X makes a simplistic return. I say simplistic, as in it's essentially a straight line. Indeed, the flow between nodes goes back, forth, and every which way as Crystarium Points are spent, but the flow always feels linear and distant from the overall grid. The first game had a full, visualized grid for leveling through a lined path with branches for abilities and specializations. Now, the Crystarium has each node add a level count for each indicated Role, and abilities are all in the same linear path between each “tier.” All of the Roles are also within the same path on the Crystarium grid instead of having a path dedicated to each Role, which can be taken how it appears by the reader. Personally, I liked having unique visualization for my grids and enjoyed the Crystarium that was used in XIII. I'm sure that these changes were meant to streamline the process, but the changes gave the system more layers to work through, which convoluted the experience for me.
Another change to the Crystarium is the addition of giving each Crystarium “tier” a completion bonus, such as Role boosts, new roles, Ultimate abilites (later in the game), extra ATB (Active-Time Battle) gauges, and Accessory Points. The latter is another toss-up subject in the game, since equipping multiple accessories requires a high amount of unlocked points. Fortunately, the game doesn't really require a whole lot from accessories through most of the game, and having an extra thing like this for hardcore gamers to obsess over is a fairly balanced, yet initially useless, change to the system.
Puzzles finally make a robust and glorious return to the Final Fantasy world, and they're used to alleviate Temporal Rifts “in the timeline;” a phrase heard frequently throughout the game. The game has a small variety of puzzles, ranging from a celestial connect-the-dots, a clock with random numbers that needs clearing, and a game that requires all items to be collected on a path that disappears after being walked on. You will be happy to know that these puzzles aren't particularly difficult, especially within the core storyline; if you're like me, though, you'll want to destroy your controller and everything around you when you fail at the clock-clearing game over 40 times in one sitting.
Also new to the “changing timeline” is the Mog Clock, which seems intended to replace the Shrouds from the original game, which granted party buffs for whichever one was used before combat was initiated. Along with replacing the Shrouds, the Mog Clock is intended to meld the world between the RPG-staple random battles and having physical enemies on the field. When monsters appear, the Mog Clock activates, and striking the enemy grants a preemptive strike and a Haste buff; encounters can also be fleed from by simply moving far enough away so that enemies aren't in a radius that's indicated by a visible circle around your character.
The beautiful graphics that stapled XIII as a CG-bordering performance make their reappearance in XIII-2—to most of its former glory, anyway. Not many aspects of this game are ugly, but the additions to the game sometimes make frame rates go down and some load times go up. When things start going down, and a lot is on screen, or an added mechanic is activated, such as the Mog Clock, the frame rates drop, almost to below 30 per second at the more hefty times. Gladly, it's not to the level of Skyrim's infamous problems, and the reductions go away after a few seconds of processing. It feels like the engine was untouched as SE added features and it doesn't feel like streamlining the engine was a particularly a big deal; but I'm sure it would have taken another year to launch, if they had.
At the very top of untouched features, the tutorial system is still based mostly on reading and then responding. The only positive aspect to this is that a lot more prompts come up with story context that helps bring a little importance to reading them, and they don't really require having to constantly delve back into the Datalog for missed instructions.
“An absolute dream” is how I would describe the sounds in this game—all of the sounds, including the soundtrack and the voice acting. The soundtrack is very robust, giving a strong blend of orchestrations and even some more modern music; in fact, one of the songs used for combat has a similar feel to the Jecht fight from Final Fantasy X. Some of the script is a bit unorthodox, but not one line comes off as in-genuine or dull. I only mean orthodox, because this game has a lot of obvious Japanese influence, and some of their iterations, rephrasing, and vagueness are staples there and they are a bit awkward and convoluted in most places.
The experience that is Final Fantasy XIII-2 is one that may not be a cup of tea for everyone, but it's a prime example of a couple of things: the best of the RPGs of old, a strong attempt as a diverse and true Japanese game, and an attempt to take away that hand holding feel of modern games without completely losing touch. Many areas, or times really, have a wide spread difficulty of monsters and relative situations, and they are not always indicated very clearly. Hints are usually littered in the random tutorial system, but it was really nice to be able to work through a lot of parts in such a way that was neither instigated nor hindered; it's right in the middle of Dark Souls and World of Warcraft, in that aspect.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 has a lot of hiccups, and a lot of the time I've spent with this game has been up and down, in terms of likeness. But it has hit more than it has missed, but the problems tend to shine in the darkest of times. Perseverance is another possible name for this game, since the flow of the story is somewhat sporadic, but it's rewarding to do so. It still has a strong Final Fantasy feel, albeit not as strong, and some of the great changes are contradicted by odd or particular ones. Still, apart from its flaws, it's a game worth trying if Final Fantasy XIII was to your liking; it's definitely a game for fans. Fortunately for this title, it doesn't have many other games launching around it, and it probably wouldn't look as appealing with its stigma that carried over from XIII. Hopefully, that can work to Square-Enix's advantage. The Final Fantasy series requires a little empathy in order to appreciate it, which is a little disappointing due to it having such a large title base and following. Still, XIII-2 is a glimmer of hope through a sporadic, self-inflicted darkness that hopefully influences where Square-Enix goes from here.
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-The Final Word-
This fantasy needs a bit more effort to be final.