Monday, 20 February 2012

Time Shenanigans! Final Fantasy XIII-2 Review

This review can also be found at The Yorker, here.

Note: I have discussed Final Fantasy XIII recently, found here. I'd suggest giving it a quick read; as much of what I have to say here, relates heavily to that game.

Okay, so to be frank, Japanese RPGs and the Final Fantasy series in particular have an incredibly specific target audience. For the most part, you know whether you're interested in a Final Fantasy title or not; but the sticking point here is that Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a spin-off sequel; and what's more, to a game that was rather unpopular with some vocal RPG fans.

In terms of plot, you'd do well imagining Doctor Who cast with anime stereotypes. Initially set 3 years after FFXIII's ending, you play as Serah, the sister of FFXIII's protagonist Lightning. Even though the day had been saved, it seems as though Lightning never came back home, even though Serah has memories of her doing so. Cue the introduction of Paradoxes, appearances of out-of-time phenomena that may well be the cause of Lightning not returning home. Serah teams up with plucky-young-hero-from-the-future Noel, and the rest of the game involves jumping around locations in ages both future and past, correcting whatever Paradoxes have shown up.

Square Enix saw the complaints that FFXIII had gotten, and actively publicised FFXIII-2 as for the people who disliked the previous game. Under most circumstances that would be a bold gesture - an admission to wholeheartedly diverting from the main series would cause fans of a series to panic in most circumstances; but when you bear in mind that FFXIII was a big subversion of RPG standards in multiple ways, what Square Enix is saying here is that they're going back to staple stylistic choices.

And that has certainly happened for Final Fantasy XIII-2; for the worse more than anything else.

The overt linearity of the original game has largely gone. The nature of the time-travel plot means there's a lot of hopping back and forth between different locations; though there's only a single plotline to follow. This becomes a problem in two big ways - if the plot isn't clear about where to go next, you're stuck with scouring every location you've been to for the next piece of plot; and the loading time for entering each area is abysmal.

Of course, with the linearity reduced, FFXIII-2 brings back one of the things I hate most about RPGs - grinding. For those who aren't familiar with the term, grinding refers to beating up the same monsters in an area for a long period, in order to gain extra money, items, or experience. This could take anywhere from minutes to days depending on the game (If you know someone who plays World of Warcraft, this is basically what they're doing).
Personally, excessive grinding in a game kills the experience. Whatever pacing is established is ruined once you deem it necessary to halt all progress and level up some more. What I absolutely loved about FFXIII was the complete abolishment of grinding. You were always in a state to take on the next boss and progress with the story. It kept things snappy and fresh, but FFXIII-2 slows you all the way down.

The side-ponytail is not a good look... ©Square Enix
In terms of plot and characters FFXIII was competent, but hardly pushing for the greatest video game story ever told. This gives FFXIII-2 room to compete but... that doesn't really manifest. Serah and Noel are only two playable characters in FFXIII-2(ignoring downloadable content), and neither of them are particularly compelling; or even really that endearing. To fill out the rest of your party you can recruit wild monsters that you defeat, a feature familiar to many. Though some of the monster designs are definitely filled with more personality than the main characters, they obviously don't deepen the storyline any.

Aesthetically, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is all-positive. The locations are stunning. The time-hopping plot lets you jump from sweeping plains to rain-soaked ruins to super high-tech cities, and they all look great. But what really stands out is the incredible music direction. For the majority of the Final Fantasy franchise, we've had the musical styling of Nobuo Uemasu; who, while having a lot of experience, a lot of his work got very similar. He's out of the picture in FFXIII-2 and I've never been happier. The tone shifts from ballad to electronica to jazz tointentionally cheesy metal without jarring. It's worth playing with a pair of headphones or a good speaker system to hear all the subtleties.

My grievance with FFXIII-2 is that the changes it has made from its prequel has turned it into a generic Japanese RPG. For me, that's a huge deal-breaker; but then again, there were a lot of fans who disliked FFXIII, and they'll surely love the traditional sensibilities and the less-serious storyline.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 is out now on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. (360 version reviewed)

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