‘XIII-2’ Takes It a Notch Further

Courtesy of Square Enix

The merits of every “Final Fantasy” game are always intensely debated, but “Final Fantasy XIII” proved especially divisive for fans of the series. While some felt the game suffered from excessive linearity and a muddled story, others greatly enjoyed “XIII” due to the strength of its incredible battle system. “Final Fantasy XIII-2” addresses many of the gameplay and design problems found in the original, but the story and writing wound what is otherwise an impressive RPG.

“XIII-2” begins three years after its predecessor’s ending. Lightning, the protagonist from “XIII,” has disappeared and is believed dead by everyone except her sister Serah. Alongside a new hero, Noel, Serah embarks on a journey across space and time to find Lightning. The premise of the story is interesting enough to get started, but it quickly begins to fall apart in execution.

Noel and Serah are decent heroes for the game, but the majority of the characters they encounter are either uninteresting, annoying or both. The largest problem I have with the story is that nearly every mystery encountered is attributed by the characters to be the work of time paradoxes. Not only is blaming everything on time paradoxes lazy writing, it’s just absurd. While time paradoxes degrade the quality of the smaller arcs, it’s almost even harder to care about the main story since the canonical ending ends with the words “to be continued” and offers little resolution.

Though the story is weak in “XIII-2,” from a strictly gameplay perspective, “Final Fantasy XIII-2” is one of the most engaging games in the series. Everything, from the combat and exploration to the presentation, is handled incredibly well in XIII-2.

The beloved battle system from “XIII” returns with many tweaks to make it even stronger than before. The basics still apply, as once again you aren’t directly inputting commands, but rather directing the flow of battle by switching paradigms. A paradigm consists of a collection of roles, one from each of the party members. Unlike “XIII,” you can opt to ignore the normal behavior of roles in combat and set your group to focus on one or multiple targets, which is incredibly useful in achieving higher performance grades in combat.

There are still three members in your party, but since Noel and Serah are the only human members, the third slot is now always filled by a recruitable monster. Unlike Noel and Serah, who eventually have access to all six roles, every monster in the game is given only one role. Each monster has different base stats and, once captured, can be leveled up individually with the “Crystarium.” Especially because of the flexibility of the third slot, there are infinitely more strategic decisions to be made on and off the battlefield.

“XIII-2” overhauls the nature of exploration found in “XIII” to great results. The 40-hour corridor from the original has been replaced with areas filled branching pathways, secrets to find, NPCs to talk to and side quests to complete. As a result, the beautiful locations you visit are no longer just eye candy to look at as you walk forward, but are places that need to be explored. The game fully opens up exploration – in addition to combat and leveling up – at the two hour mark this time around, which is a huge improvement over the forty-hour tutorial “XIII” had.

The renewed focus on exploration is complemented by the “Historia Crux” system. Similar in both name and function to time travel in the Nintendo DS RPG “Radiant Historia,” playing through “XIII-2” unlocks time gates which allow you to go new areas across different eras. Some of the gates are required, but others are optional. Either way, with the “Historia Crux,” you can jump in and out of areas really quickly. It is great to be able to save challenges for later and know that the story won’t block you off at any point. As a result, the “Historia Crux” makes the world of “XIII-2” more cohesive.

The final strong aspect of “XIII-2” is the presentation elements. The game’s artistic triumphs are impressive. Not only does the graphics and animation look superb, the wide range of color adds great character to the world. The soundtrack for “XIII-2” is unique for the series because there are more songs with vocals than ever before. Also, I was surprised by the addition of dialogue options during cutscenes, which proved interesting because of the range of options available from the serious to the silly.

I have been greatly enjoying my time with “Final Fantasy XIII-2.” With incredible combat and exploration, “XIII-2” is a fantastic RPG mechanically. The story does falter, but considering how fun “XIII-2” is, it’s definitely worth checking out whether you have played the original or not.

Rating: 4 out of 5