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Final Fantasy XIII-2 (Xbox 360) artwork

Final Fantasy XIII-2 (Xbox 360) review

"I’ve now wasted 60 hours of my life on FFXIII-2. I’ve found all of the fragments, earned all of the achievements, and seen all of the endings. I know this game inside-out. I know it better than many of the people who like it. No one could accuse me of not giving it a fair chance. And yet every effort I made to find value in it was unceremoniously shot down."

Final Fantasy XIII-2 asset

I’ve devoted 60 hours of my life to finding value in Final Fantasy XIII-2, and if I didn’t know better, I’d say Square-Enix was deliberately trying to stop me from enjoying it.

They were, of course, well aware of how poorly the last game was received, and its follow-up was hyped as one that addresses its predecessor’s flaws. But FFXIII-2 operates under the belief that the only thing wrong with FFXIII was its linearity. If this were true, its sequel would please everyone. FFXIII-2, like the last game, treats us to lush forests, vast mountain ranges and overwhelming futuristic cityscapes. The difference is that now, instead of gazing at them from a distance whilst treading down corridors, we can actually survey them freely and admire the considerable production values that went into making them so believable. Time travel is a major element of the story, and great care was taken to giving individual timelines their own unique color schemes; a ruin that’s rainy in present day might be snowy a century later, and covered in thick overgrowth two centuries after that. FFXIII-2 is a sight to behold and a joy to explore.

And yet, it all means so little to me. I commented in my review of FFXIII that this world seems fascinating, and that the game’s overly restrictive nature was what kept it from thriving. I see now that I was wrong. It wasn’t a failure of design; it was a failure to connect. FFXIII-2’s world is considerably more open than the last one, yet for the second time in a row, Square-Enix has utterly failed to make me care about what happens in it.

FFXIII-2’s story is bad in every way a story can be bad. The basic plotline is a convoluted mess, relying far too heavily on a time travel mechanic that even the writers themselves don’t seem to fully grasp, its logistics too lazily established, its “rules” too poorly-defined. The characters all have invisible agendas, contradict themselves, or are just flat-out dumb. They talk and talk (and talk and talk), yet I walk away knowing virtually nothing about their incredibly murky inner workings. Never has so much dialog amounted to so little. I remember hating FFXIII's story; I don't recall becoming violently angry over the fact that someone was paid to write it.

The game begins, rather ominously, with a bit of revisionist history. Remember how Lightning survived the end of the first game? Well, keep it to yourself, because apparently that’s not what happened. According to FFXIII-2, Lightning vanished during the Ragnarok event, and now resides in Valhalla, where she has donned some fancy-looking armor and is currently waging war against a dark fellow with an Alan Rickman-y voice. One of the game’s few pre-rendered cutscenes depicts an extraordinary battle between the two, and Square-Enix was evidently so proud of this cinematic that they elected to show it to us twice, though we can’t hear the dialog the first time, so I guess it’s justified.

Our protagonist this time around is Serah, whom you’ll recall is Lightning’s sister. She’s engaged to Snow, that popped-collared brozilla from the first game, who is also missing. She soon meets a young man named Noel, who says things like “I’m not good at holding back!” and is so uninteresting that I am completely at a loss to describe him. At one point, Noel and Snow get into a verbal slapfight, and Noel is the one who comes across as the bigger douchebag, if that gives you any idea how unlikeable he is. He wants to save the world, and Serah wants to track down her missing loved ones (who for some reason are both named after weather conditions), and they somehow determine that there’s an overlap between these two objectives, so they go on an adventure together.

Noel, by the way, is from the future – the gloomy, post-apocalyptic kind. He’s jumped back in time to prevent the end of the world from happening, but he seems to keep forgetting this, as ten hours into the game, he’s still utterly gobsmacked whenever someone suggests that his actions here and now could change the future. The villain is Caius, who is also from Noel’s time, I think. Caius wants to save a little girl (who’s dressed in uncomfortably sexy attire) from the eternal suffering of being reincarnated again and again, or something, and for some reason this involves destroying the entire world, and of course the only way to accomplish this is to create time paradoxes.

Yes, FFXIII-2 is a game about time travel, and its writers wield the word “paradox” like a caveman who’s just discovered fire. It’s their do-all, say-all explanation for every bizarre anomaly that occurs in the story, their ultimate crutch for every obstacle they wish to throw in their protagonists’ path. Why is a group of angry tomato monsters chipping away at the crystal pillar holding Cocoon in place? Because paradoxes. What is this rampaging giant, and where did it come from? It’s a paradox; it came from paradoxes. Each paradox is corrected by finding an “artefact,” which yields a “fragment.” We go through this process probably a couple dozen times throughout FFXIII-2, yet whenever a character deduces that a new encumbrance may just be another damned paradox, it’s met with back-patting, as if this is some astounding revelation. Which makes sense, because these people are idiots.

See, here’s the thing that puzzles me. The NPCs and supporting characters all refer nonchalantly to the “paradox effect” like it’s no big deal. I can buy that, I guess, if this is a world in which time travel is an accepted thing. But why, then, are the two protagonists – the ones who are doing all of the time-travelling – so completely incapable of understanding what’s going on? Noel spends roughly the first hour of the game trying to convince Serah that he’s from the future, and that she should travel through one of the time gates with him. She does, and when they come out on the other end, she’s dumbfounded by the fact that the Gran Elevator, which isn’t due for completion for another year… was finished a year ago! It’s almost as if… why, it’s almost as if they just jumped two years into the future! Imagine that!

Later, when Noel bumps into Caius for the first time and recognizes him, he exclaims, “He couldn’t be here! Not in this time!” Why not? You’re here, aren’t you? Do you not understand any of this stuff? Well, to be fair, I don’t, and I doubt the people who wrote it did, either. At one point, the protagonists’ actions in the future change something in the past. Just how does that work, exactly? Square-Enix offers the once-and-done explanation that “the timeline is folding over onto itself” and that “any disruption causes ripples” or whatever, and they hope that we’ll opt out of challenging it. I love time travel, but it’s something that should only be handled by someone who can tell complex stories in a cohesive manner. I’d love to see Christopher Nolan make a time travel movie, for example, while the people who wrote FFXIII’s god-awful plot should have stayed far away from the subject.

You may think that I am making too big a deal out of this. I am not. I’m tolerant of bad writing in games if it can be ignored, but FFXIII-2’s story is an inescapable entity, with the game’s flow constantly being broken in favor of exposition, endless rambling, and – God help us – narration. The best kind of narration is none at all; the worst is the kind that reiterates what we can plainly see. Square-Enix was so over-reliant on storytelling that an entire chapter late in the game literally has you doing almost nothing but walking your character from one cinematic to the next. I had to replay this segment because I missed an important item drop, and even with skipping all of the cutscenes – something, in retrospect, that I should have done from the beginning – it still took me twenty minutes. A whole twenty minutes of load screens and walking forward. No game should ever exist purely to tell a story, especially if it’s not one worth telling in the first place.

Should it be any surprise to anyone that one of the biggest new changes this sequel introduces, at least mechanically, is the inclusion of quick-time events? Yes, the folks at Square-Enix have finally discovered quick-time events, nearly a decade late to the party. I’m not opposed to the idea of quick-time events still working in some context, but this is Square-Enix, so of course they’re going to use them as an excuse to direct super-stylish action sequences with only barest minimum amount of player input for it to qualify as “gameplay.” Hey, Heavy Rain did it and was heralded as the poster boy of innovation, so why not Final Fantasy? The game’s big opening battle is interrupted with one such CINEMATIC ACTION (as Square-Enix calls them, oblivious to the fact that we’re not fooled), after which Lightning exclaims, “Time for a real fight!” I’ll say.

Among the game’s other ill-fated bandwagoning attempts are branching conversations – I’m sorry, LIVE TRIGGERS – and the most hilariously inconsequential moral choice in any video game, ever. You are, at one point, given the option to kill or spare a bad guy, and both paths lead to Noel… choosing not to kill him. Wow. And I don’t know where else to mention this, but it needs to be said that FFXIII-2 has what is probably the most annoying supporting character of all time in the form of a moogle named Mog. This issue is compounded by the fact that everyone in the game world thinks he’s adorable. It’s like if every character in The Phantom Menace laughed hysterically over everything Jar Jar Binks did.

But I digress. There is, somewhere, an actual game here, and that’s worth considering. After all, even most of the people who loved FFXIII admitted that the story was crap. The make-or-break factor was whether or not the game’s battle system, the focus of its design, could hold up the experience on its own. I felt it could. Many didn’t, and I respect that. Those people likely won’t be converted by FFXIII-2, because despite its more open-ended nature, whenever you’re actually called upon to play it rather than simply watch it – admittedly not as often as I’d have wished – in the end, it’s still all about the battles.

The battle system is still largely the same, for better or worse. The big difference is that you can now catch and train monsters you’ve beaten, which doesn’t really change the dynamic – you’re still fighting with three characters juggling six combat roles – but introduces a collection mechanic that’s a lot of fun (and if you owned a Game Boy circa 1998, I won’t have to explain why). The core concept of creating a deck of paradigms and then pulling the strings while your characters largely perform on their own in battle is still in full effect. Many have claimed that it’s far too easy to simply put the game on autopilot, though I don’t see how this is any worse than the many JRPGs you can complete largely by selecting “attack” over and over (which certainly doesn’t encompass all JRPGs, so don’t even go there). I found that FFXIII was paced slowly but deliberately, its steadily ramping difficulty curve requiring that you at least pay close attention to the way each battle was swaying.

In stark contrast, FFXIII-2 is, for the most part, embarrassingly easy. I don’t remember dying much in FFXIII, but I certainly don’t remember being able to read a magazine while playing, either. Most of the support classes went virtually unused by me for most of the storyline, as I was breezing through boss battles with five-star ratings by simply spamming with two Ravagers and a Commando. Most bewilderingly of all, you can now lower the difficulty, but you can’t raise it. Did anyone ever complain that FFXIII was too hard?

Granted, if you’re looking for a challenge, you’ll get one eventually, as FFXIII-2’s finale comes equipped with the most absurd difficulty spike I’ve ever seen in a game. The final boss has four phases – five if you count the fact that one of them fully restores his own health after you defeat him once, and infinite if you consider that the very last encounter is against three Bahamuts that can resurrect one another indefinitely. I was grossly under-leveled for this battle. How could I not be, when the rest of the game had been a cakewalk? So after stomping through a game that I found painful to play, I was told that I’d have to double the amount of time spent with it before seeing it through to the end. It was Square-Enix’s final insult. The first of several.

Actually, if FFXIII-2 has any value, it’s in the side quests. Finally putting aside the game’s tumor of a plot is part of the appeal, as is breaking free of the tracks and seeing some of the breathtaking environments that Square-Enix saved for those who actually look for them. But more importantly, and disregarding some of the inherent flaws of the battle system that began to grate on me (what’s the point of having a Sentinel draw enemy attacks if your other two characters are just going to stupidly crowd around him anyway?), it was at this point that I ran into some entertaining enemy encounters at long last. In fact, here’s some advice for potential players: Explore Archylte Steppe, and explore it well. Some of the game’s most rewarding boss battles are found there.

But just before I could take a step back and reconsider my stance on FFXIII-2 being miserable, I ran into another roadblock. While hunting down all of the game’s alternate endings – there are a number of them – I was forced into one of the most pointlessly infuriating boss battles I’ve ever experienced. Know that I don’t like to be needlessly frustrated, and that I differentiate between a legitimate challenge and sheer cheapness. When a boss interrupts my attacks so often that he can complete five or six combos in the time it takes me to finish one, when he regenerates health at an absurd rate and instantly restores it when I’ve brought it down to zero, when he can inconsequently wipe his stagger meter clean at any time, when the only reason he can’t be beaten is because he breaks the game in his favor, that’s cheapness. My characters were fully maxed out at this point, but I could only fight this particular battle with two of them, and everything I tried failed.

I did overcome him, eventually, but it would take several paragraphs to describe how I did it, and I’d reckon this review is taking up enough of your time already. It wasn’t so much a “strategy” as it was a loophole, one that I spent a good half-hour exploiting before I brought him down. Screw it. If he wasn’t going to play fair, neither was I. A good challenge leaves you proud for overcoming it; an unfair challenge not only forces you to beat the system, but leaves you feeling as if you had no other choice.

I’ve now wasted 60 hours of my life on FFXIII-2. I’ve found all of the fragments, earned all of the achievements, and seen all of the endings. I know this game inside-out. I know it better than many of the people who like it. No one could accuse me of not giving it a fair chance. And yet every effort I made to find value in it was unceremoniously shot down. I suffered through 99% of the central story only to be told I had to grind to oblivion before I could see the credits. I took the considerable amount of time to max out my characters’ stats only to be met with more senseless frustration. And then I finally went back and killed those stupid Bahamuts only to be rewarded with the biggest middle finger of a cliffhanger ending since Halo 2. Not only was it an unsatisfying non-conclusion to an altogether incomprehensible plot, but the ominous “to be continued” title card ensures that they’re going to make another sequel.

And you know, on one level, I admire that FFXIII-2 even exists. I mean, if Ubisoft had given up on Assassin’s Creed after the poorly-received and admittedly rather cruddy first entry, we’d have been robbed of one of the best and most distinctive new franchises of this generation. But there’s a difference between righting your wrongs and beating a dead horse, and FFXIII-2’s fatal new issues, combined with Square-Enix’s continued inability to tell a coherent story, leave me with no interest in what happens in Gran Pulse next. Hopefully they’ll just decide to can it and move on. Or maybe we can all just stop pretending that this desperate series is still relevant. Why people still cling to the Final Fantasy brand, I’ll never know. Probably because paradoxes.

Suskie's avatar
Featured community review by Suskie (February 12, 2012)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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zippdementia posted February 12, 2012:

Maybe in game three we'll finally get a new final fantasy without a warhammer of a story beating you to death. Totally agree with everything you've said here and I haven't even played FFXIII-2. I agree with you on just based on SE's behavior in FFXIII-1.... I mean, for me, this could have been a review on FFXIII-1, minus all the fun exploring.

Great review. It made me laugh even as I hurt inside.

One thing I think you may have meant to write differently, tell me if I'm wrong:

"Did anyone ever complain that FFXIII was too easy?"

I think you meant to say "Did anyone ever complain that FFXIII wasn't easy enough?"
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espiga posted February 12, 2012:

Nice review~

You may be interested to know that at least Final Fantasy Type-0 is a ridiculously good game, one worthy of what the brand used to stand for.

Of course, after a decade of misses, they were bound to have a hit sometime.
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Suskie posted February 12, 2012:

I actually don't have a PSP. Though I wonder how cheap they'll be now that Vita's arriving? Type-0 does look pretty fantastic.

Thanks for the comments. Good correction, Zipp.
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jerec posted February 12, 2012:

Great stuff. Still somewhat curious to play it, but now I'm thinking bargain bin prices. I can wait.
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zippdementia posted February 12, 2012:

Hey, quick question. The alternate ending stuff seems to send my mind images of Chrono Triggers fun endings (which actually made a weird sort of sense, based on the time travel events and when you choose to beat the game). How does it pan out in FFXIII-2? Anything interesting or just more shit?
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Suskie posted February 12, 2012:

It is actually a bit like Chrono Trigger, except most of them can only be unlocked with an item you get after completing the main game, so you'll have to actually go back and replay certain bits, which is easy to do but kinda tedious. A lot of them are dumb, but the one relating to Atlas (which you unlock by defeating with without first weakening him with the nearby device) is actually pretty cool.
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zigfried posted February 12, 2012:

Here's the line that made me realize I was going to really enjoy reading this review (and I did):

I’ve devoted 60 hours of my life to finding value in Final Fantasy XIII-2

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threetimes posted February 14, 2012:

Great review. Pretty much decided to skip this game on the basis of the demo and a hilarious commentary on the first 10 minutes or so I saw on Youtube. Seems it was the right decision.
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JoeTheDestroyer posted February 16, 2012:

Excellent review, Mike!

I'm trying to pinpoint when and where Square went wrong. Maybe it's just me, but it seems like they try too hard to be relevant. They were awesome back in the mid-90s to early 2000s, but it's like they went downhill as their fanbase if they were trying to draw many different audiences to one product.
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overdrive posted February 16, 2012:

Honestly, I think the problem with Square/FF is that they seem to want to overhaul the battle system/gameplay in every single game, but their storytelling has dwindled to a combination of over-the-top dramatics and the same sort of generic JRPG cliche characters they've been running in some form for ages where you have the stoic, antisocial one; the boisterous enthusiastic one; the token teen boy; etc. teaming up to fight the "evil empire".
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jerec posted February 16, 2012:

Joe, I think their demise happened when they merged with Enix, but I think their problems really started with The Spirits Within. They lost a lot of money, and so they started doing sequels with short development times to create a low cost game that would sell madly.

And a high budget game would just be big cinematic scenes that get more and more ridiculous, and ridiculous stories to match them.
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bbbmoney posted February 16, 2012:

I've never played an FF with deeply written characters or down to earth narratives. Just sayin.

btw, very fun read, suskie.

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Suskie posted February 16, 2012:

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I really appreciate it.

My long-standing issue with this series is that it's not really a "series" at all. The only thing the Final Fantasy games ever collectively represented was a consistent level of quality that other JRPGs strove to equal, and I think most of us can agree that those days are well behind us. I'm not a Final Fantasy expert, but not only does SE clearly not know what to do with this brand, they've been consistently letting fans down.

Which is why I said that we need to stop giving this franchise more respect than it deserves. "Final Fantasy" doesn't mean anything anymore.
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bbbmoney posted February 16, 2012:

Isn't it a bit of an exaggeration to say they don't know what they're doing? Sure, if we go around the boards of the internet, Square Enix is by far one of the most despised developers out there. I mean, nothing they make is considered remotely playable these days. But they're pulling huge numbers, and anyone telling them to stop their current strategy of breaking into new markets would be kindly shown the door of the conference room.

What's most interesting to me is that nearly all the discussion around the destruction of Square revolves around their more financially successful projects (X-2, XII, XIII, XIII-2, etc...). But no one seems to talk about one of the biggest bombs in MMO history -- Final Fantasy XIV. That's why they're hurting, really, and if anything XIII-2 is helping them dig out of a huge hole. They've been remaking that MMO under the cover of free to play for a !@#$! year now, it only recently went back up for subscription. A block buster MMO and a year without income?

It doesn't get as much coverage because it's an MMO, and it's disconnected from the rage of the fanbase. It doesn't rub the wounds as deeply as the main installments do, right? Oh that FF MMO thing, yeah who cares about that?

Unless we're talking strictly from a non-business standpoint. I apologize for the tangent if that was the case.

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JoeTheDestroyer posted February 16, 2012:

I'm not talking from a business standpoint, merely stating an opinion. I think it's different niches or types of people who have different views on Square. Some people still like their products, and that's fine. There are some of us, though, who aren't impressed. Then there are some who buy the new FF game, play it for a week or so, stop playing it, wind up selling or trading it, and never really give their two cents on the matter.

I've never played an FF with deeply written characters or down to earth narratives. Just sayin.

True, but there have been plenty that had much better characters than the recent ones. For me, it's not the depth of the characters that matters, it's whether or not they're interesting. And I don't think a character has to be literary-canon deep to be interesting. I tend to lose interest if I don't like the characters, and many J-RPGs today like to overload on annoying characters.

I think my problem of late (with J-RPGs in general and not just Square, to be fair) is that developers have rehashed the same character types to the point that they all run together for me. I can't differentiate one stoic older character from another; same goes with spastic teenage girls who may or may not be ninjas, big breasted women with loads of battle experience, overly eager teenage protagonists, and whiny spiky-haired swordsmen. I've enjoyed plenty of games with these characters in the past, but nowadays they feel like painful cliches.

Bear in mind that none of this reflects my thoughts on Final Fantasy XIII-2, because I have yet to play it (or XIII-1, for that matter). Whether or not I'll like either of these games or the characters therein remains to be seen.

And yeah, fuck FFXIV!

Oops, forgot the X!
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bbbmoney posted February 16, 2012:

Good points, sorry for misunderstanding the previous argument. I never played FFs for the literary depth either, just for a colorful cast of characters and a fun story. I don't think XIII will change your mind on their current direction though, haha.

"And yeah, fuck FFXIV!"

That's all I wanted =]
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zippdementia posted February 16, 2012:

I have recently gone back and played FFVI and it still works, so definitely something is different from before. But then, that was an ENTIRELY different team of game developers. That was back in the days of the dream team, which included Nobuo Uematsu as composer, Yoshitaka Amano as art director (and he is an artist before he is a character designer, which I think is important), and Yoshinori Kitase, who had a !@#$! degree in cinematic story telling (that's not a joke, he really does), and Hironobu Sakaguchi as writer.

Maybe the most important thing about this team was that they had been together since FF1. That's a lot of time to get all the bugs worked out and to strengthen your compatibility with each other. People are all over the place when it comes to opinion on FFVII-FFXII, but one thing I've noticed that stands out about FFXIII is that it is the first Final Fantasy where everyone is either working in a new capacity or with someone they haven't before.

Might mean something.
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Suskie posted February 16, 2012:

Holdthephone, I'm not questioning the Final Fantasy franchise's ability to make money. But I can tell that SE actually does have some semblance of a desire to make their fans happy in addition to taking their money, and... well, I wouldn't say they're clueless, but this is exactly what I meant when I said that Final Fantasy isn't a "series." It didn't always matter. In the SNES days, when you bought a Final Fantasy title, you knew what you were getting into and you knew it would be really good, even if it had no relation to the last game in the franchise apart from its title. Nowadays, when a game has "Final Fantasy" on the box, what does that tell you about the game? Absolutely nothing. The last FF game to be universally regarded as great came out over a decade ago, and since then we've gotten two MMOs, one with a real-time battle system, and one that abandons so many JRPG tropes that it barely fits into the genre. The FF name sells well by default, but why should it?

And for the record, I didn't mention FFXIV because there are few things in this world that I care about less than MMOs. At the risk of sounding dismissive.
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bbbmoney posted February 16, 2012:

I'll agree with you on the name not meaning anything anymore. Well, it basically translates to "big RPG by square, yellow birds included." And that's how I look at each one these days.
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Sise-Neg posted February 17, 2012:

Great review, Suskie. I agree about the writing especially. So much of it was mind numbingly idiotic. By the way, how did you insert an image at the top of your review?
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Suskie posted February 17, 2012:

If you go into the game's profile and click "View Assets," you'll see the image, as well as the appropriate HTML. Thanks for reading, by the way!
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EmP posted May 06, 2012:

Just got around to reading this. It's now my favourite Suskie review.
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Suskie posted May 06, 2012:

Thanks, EmP. Really pleases me to see so much positive feedback on this review.

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