"There seem to be many who think that just because a game has high production costs it should automatically have a grade of average or higher, especially when it comes from Square Enix. But people should have learned by now that high production values do not make a good game. Competent script writing and involving gameplay have been sacrificed once again for pretty graphics."
Final Fantasy XIII disappointed many fans of the franchise due to an abundance of massive problems such as a weak and convoluted plot, a shallow and forgettable cast of characters, linearity that prevented any sort of exploration and gameplay that required little interaction. Final Fantasy XIII-2 attempts to rectify these problems and provide RPG fans with a better experience this time around. Does Square Enix succeed in improving on Final Fantasy XIII? Yes and no. While there are some welcome changes, most of them are trivial and fail to fix the basic problems that plagued Final Fantasy XIII. A weak and forgettable cast, a convoluted plot, shallow gameplay and an uninspired soundtrack combine to create a wearisome experience that is best left in the shadows of history as another forgettable RPG.
Once again the developers at Square Enix spent a lot of energy in creating a world full of colorful graphics and pretty scenery. Love or hate the game, Final Fantasy XIII-2 does look great on a big screen television. However, despite how nice everything looks there does seem to be a slight downgrade from the graphics of Final Fantasy XIII. Additionally, magic spells are small and unimpressive. The flashiness of Final Fantasy XIII-2 is mostly found in cutscenes. It would have been nice had attacks in battle been more elaborate. Nevertheless, the graphics are good and those who are obsessed with graphic quality in their games will not be disappointed in this area.
Unfortunately the soundtrack in Final Fantasy XIII-2 is uninspired. Square Enix decided to go a new direction this time around. The soundtrack is filled with a variety of generic metal and generic J-pop. The main battle theme, which will be playing the most, is a string of repeated power chords with some violin interspersed here and there. If you think about riding a chocobo, prepare to hear the classic chocobo theme turned into an angst-ridden barrage of power chords and screaming. This brings up the problem of the vocals present in the soundtrack. Many of them are not quite understandable due to the instruments being much louder than the singer. This only adds to the fact that the lyrics, when present, destroy the mood of the environment. That is not to say that singing should never be allowed in a Final Fantasy soundtrack – Nobuo Uematsu proved that with the great musical piece “Suteki Da Ne” in Final Fantasy X. But none of the vocal tracks work here, and despite the flatness of the pop and metal themes, it would have been better had the vocals just been left out.
The sound effects are quite basic, if not lacking. Slashes of swords, magic attacks, enemy growls and the like are all there, but nothing actually stands out or sounds like you think they should. The physical attacks and spells do not sound like they create much of an impact. If it was not for the status bar above enemies it would be hard to tell that they actually got hurt from being attacked. If I punch a person in real life, I know that the person I punched is hurt by the cry of pain. Similarly, I will be more impressed with myself if the punch sounds like it made an impact. Instead, during battles magic attacks hit with what sounds like a broom scratching a hardwood floor and sword slashes do not sound realistic
Voice acting does not redeem the other poor qualities of the sound. While the voice actors certainly are not helped due to the poor quality of the script, the voice actors themselves are a big part of the problem. The dialogue between characters is stiff and unnatural. The lead female character often get too high pitched and grating to the ears, and the male lead sounds like he does not want to be in the recording studio. At times I found myself missing some of the voice actors from Final Fantasy titles on the Playstation 2, which speaks volumes for the poor quality of the voice acting here.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 has a plot so melodramatic and incoherent that if this were made into a movie it would definitely be a contender for the prestigious Golden Raspberry Award. The game takes place three years after the events of FFXIII. The world of Cocoon has fallen and some of the survivors now live in the world of Gran Pulse, where new cities and locations have been built (explaining the new areas to explore). Lightning has disappeared and been taken to Valhalla because of a time paradox and Snow ends up disappearing some time later. Serah is left to look for Lightning on her own when one day the town she lives in, New Bodhum, is overrun with strange monsters. A new character named Noel Kreiss appears out of nowhere and says that he knows where to find Lightning. Serah decides to join him and they travel through time so as to find out where Lightning is. Essentially, Final Fantasy XIII-2’s plot is one big time traveling fiasco.
A brief explanation of the plot cannot accurately reveal all of the inconsistencies and ridiculous aspects that are found in the story and even if spoilers were allowed in this review the breaking down of all things wrong with the plot would take far too much time and space. However, the way the story is told is certainly an aspect worth focusing on.
A story can have a less than stellar plot and still be enjoyable as long as it is told well. But good narrative is not to be found in Final Fantasy XIII-2. Rather than have the story unfold and let players see for themselves where the adventure takes them, and perhaps pick up on subtle messages along the way, the script writers decided to unravel the plot through cutscenes of long and uninteresting monologues of explanation. The narrative is meticulous to such a degree that putting everything together takes a fair bit of thought. That could be forgiven if the plot’s conclusion manages to be worth it all, but when it finally appeared I was left with a thought of “So, that’s it? Huh.” There are some “Paradox” a.k.a. alternate endings, but none were especially interesting. The melodrama so present within the story makes the conclusion very anticlimactic and disappointing.
The cast is unable to act as the plot’s crutch due to its mix of superfluous and unlikable characters. I say superfluous because many of the characters present in Final Fantasy XIII hardly get any screen time and are quickly tossed aside right after they are introduced. Remember Lightning, the girl on the game’s cover? Don’t expect to see much of her. Sazh Katzroy and his son Dajh? They may as well be wallpaper in the background. Serah and the new guy Noel Kreiss are the main characters in this installment and if one does not quite mesh with either of their personalities then there is very little point in playing because the adventure is mostly focused on them. Unfortunately, I found this duo to be unable to maintain my interest.
Serah is supposed to be a very smart girl due to her background, but when one witnesses how clueless she acts due to purposes of plot convenience it is hard to believe that she had any sort of prior education. She carries a Valspeak dialect, and if the ditzy materialist type bothers you then you are sure to be bothered by her. Noel Kreiss does not seem to have a noticeably distinguishable personality and may as well be named Generic RPG Protagonist # 1234. I felt like he could be replaced by anyone else and no aspects of the game would be changed. Pieces of the story reveal that he has had bad things happen to him, but he is so one-dimensional that it is hard to muster any sort of emotional involvement in him. Of course Square Enix thought that only two characters would make for a lacking experience so they added a levitating moogle named Mog that keeps Serah and Noel company on their journey. What was an opportunity for great comic relief was ruined with how they shaped Mog’s personality. Mog constantly pops in your face and says nonsense variants of “KUPOPO!” in an attempt to be funny. Maybe some will find this amusing but I found it stale after the first time and wished there was an option to turn him off. As far as the bad guys in this game are concerned, they get comparatively little screen time. It would have been nice if the new main villain, Caius Ballad, got more screen time as he is more entertaining than the main characters, even if he has that silly androgynous design in typical Final Fantasy fashion. Instead, the way he was executed made him a tame villain in comparison to others in the Final Fantasy franchise and not especially memorable.
If you are not a fan of the Paradigm system from Final Fantasy XIII then you will be sorely disappointed with the battle system in Final Fantasy XIII-2. For those who did not play FFXIII and do not know what the Paradigm system is, basically you assign automated roles that act as jobs in battle that have certain bonuses. With this system, you essentially control one player and watch the CPU take control of the others. Once the tide turns in battle or you feel like switching your style up a bit you can change the Paradigm as you please. So if one of your characters was assigned as a Commando originally but then starts to get low on health you can change the Paradigm to Medic for healing. Likewise, if the enemy is about to die you can switch everyone’s Paradigm to one that is attack oriented and watch them pummel it to the ground.
The reason why the Paradigm system feels so uninspired is due to the lack of involvement and control compared to the battle systems of previous installments in the Final Fantasy franchise. With the Auto-Battle feature one can simply enter a battle and watch the characters fight it out without having to press a button, as the party usually has everything under control and will win the battle without a need for Paradigm switches. It is really only necessary to switch Paradigms every so often during boss fights. The reason I say this is because the challenge in Final Fantasy XIII-2 is almost non-existent. Random battle enemies are never a threat and bosses are quite simple despite their massive sizes. Battles are basically just going through the (few) motions and there is not much thought required. Most battles can be won by attacking all-out and using a Medic every once in a while, meaning some of the Paradigm roles are useless. Not once did I have to use the Synergist or the Saboteur roles to get through a battle.
There are very few Quick Time Events (only 5) added into battles now. Completing them successfully garners certain bonuses and failing nets a penalty. This adds almost nothing to the gameplay. QTE’s have really only disguised poor battle systems to begin with and it is sad to see so many games implement them. They have never been fun or engaging. Likewise, the QTE’s here are a failed attempt at disguising the lack of strategy involved in battles.
Another problem is that the actions in battle that are controllable are extremely limited. For example, if you give someone the role of Medic you will never be able to choose who the person heals. Most of the time the healer will cure the one with the lowest health and not the person being attacked, and even after everyone is healed the person will keep healing even though there is no healing to be done. It is a very limited battle system that feels like a big step down from previous titles. The ATB system present in Final Fantasy X-2 was much more involving and strategic and would have worked well for this game. Additionally, some frame rate issues also plague the battles at random points, so not only does the battle system lack involvement but it also doesn't run smoothly at times and feels like a laggy CGI sequence.
There are some changes to the battle system, however. This time around when your party leader is knocked out you are not automatically given a Game Over. Instead, the control is switched to the surviving party member and this gives you a chance to heal up. Another change in the gameplay is the Mog Clock. When a monster is about to show up on the world map a timer appears and the X button has to be pressed within a certain period of time. If successful, certain bonuses will be added at the start of battle, such as enhancements like Haste being given to the party or a larger chain gauge on the enemy. However, if unsuccessful penalties like the Slow status effect or an empty ATB gauge will be given.
One new aspect of the battle system that people seem to like is the ability to capture enemies. After a battle there is a probability that the party will capture the defeated monster. It reminds me of the Seru-capturing ability found in Legend of Legaia, but the difference here is that instead of summoning the enemy for a single magic attack you use the monster as another party member that assists you in battle, for a total of three that can be tamed at once, though some monsters cannot be captured. However, each monster has its own inherent battle role and cannot use every role like the main party members can. This constricts the battle system even further. Though the monster capturing does add something to the gameplay it is really a shallow addition, considering that it is essentially just another character that you have no real control over.
The Crystarium System returns from Final Fantasy XIII, and for those who do not know it is basically the new version of the level up system. After the completion of a battle your party receives Crystogen Points (CP) that unlocks nodes in the Crystarium. Each character has their own unique layout in their Crystarium, much in the same way as each character had their own section of the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X (though unlike the Sphere Grid the Crystariums do not connect with each other). As CP is collected and the party levels up more bonuses can be obtained such as boosts to HP, Strength and Magic. For some reason there are no stats for Defense or Speed and this could likely be attributed to laziness on the developer’s part.
Tamed monsters can be leveled up through their own personal Crystarium, but instead of using Crystarium Points to raise role levels, items need to be used. Depending on the type of monster the types of items needed to level it up will be different and at each successive level up, the amount of items needed to level it up again will increase. Also, monsters can infuse with other monsters to learn their abilities and secret abilities can be learned through particular infusions. This may sound all nice, but it comes down to the same basic problem of all this work being pointless due to the fact that one does not have any real control over characters in the first place. There is not much reason to have a stronger monster if there is not much one can do with it.
One improvement over FFXIII is that the long hallways are gone. Now you can do some real exploration and talk to people that populate towns or grasslands and what have you. However, just because exploration is back does not automatically make it a saving grace. While it is a welcome change from the hallways in FFXIII it is not exactly deserving of a ‘thumbs up’ considering that world exploration has been a staple of RPGs since the genre’s inception. The exploration is also hampered because of the atrocious pacing in this game. The beginning has a pretty good balance between cutscenes, battles and exploring of environments. But eventually that good balance ceases to exist as exploration is shoved down your throat so you can find Artefacts that let you open Time Gates.
In terms of items, Mog can find hidden items scattered throughout the world using his magic. However, there is no indication that they are there beforehand so finding multiple items requires a lot of running around or a strategy guide. Thank goodness for the ability to throw Mog when wanting to pick up unreachable treasure. It provides a temporary release from the frustrations so prevalent in Final Fantasy XIII-2. Also, for some reason the only vendor in this game is a strange woman in a bird costume named Chocolina, and as the name implies she is obsessed with chocobos. She is a lot like O’aka the XXIII, Merchant Extraordinaire from Final Fantasy X, but she is a lot more in your face and randomly pops up in locations to sell you things. One has to wonder why there is only a single person to buy merchandise from. As far as weapons are concerned, the variety of weapons present in Final Fantasy XIII-2 is minimal and they are mostly just re-skins with no real distinguishing differences. Party members can all be equipped with the same things as well so characters have very little that separate them in battle. With this lack of variety there is hardly any incentive to spend time customizing various stats.
There is an area called Serendipity that is basically a huge casino that lets you play mini-games. Slot machines are present and can waste a good few minutes as well as a return of the chocobo racing from Final Fantasy VII. But it is not as pleasant as it could be due to the obnoxious metal remix of the chocobo theme and hardly as useful in terms of rewards. Perhaps the most disappointing thing about the extras is that they are not all there…yet. Imagine my surprise when I tried to choose a card game at the casino and the attendant at the desk replied that it would later be installed in downloadable content. So great, I have to pay extra to get things that should have already been included? That’s real swell. Want some optional bosses that you can test your skills against? Apparently Square Enix will add some additional bosses in the Coliseum, but that remains to be seen. As of now you will have to make do with the poor optional bosses to be found in the game, mainly lacking due to their absence of challenge and poor design. There are some sidequests present, but they are mainly just fetch quest missions or “go from point A to point B”. The lack of creativity to be found is quite shocking. The void of extras and abundance of cheap side quests just add to the impression that Square Enix was lazy in making Final Fantasy XIII-2.
There seem to be many who think that just because a game has high production costs it should automatically have a grade of average or higher, especially when it comes from Square Enix. But people should have learned by now that high production values do not make a good game. Competent script writing and involving gameplay have been sacrificed once again for pretty graphics. It is time for Square Enix to rebuild the franchise and fully admit that they failed with Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XIII-2. They were in denial when they thought that the story and characters were salvageable, and that is abundantly clear in this game.
Community review by Sise-Neg (February 14, 2012)
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