2010's blockbuster RPG gets a time-travelling sequel
For an entry in such a long-running series, Final Fantasy XIII was surprisingly different to its predecessors. In our review we noted that it broke the mould by ditching the vast 'dungeon' environments found in most RPGs in favour of an almost entirely linear experience driven by the plot, and introduced a revamped combat system.
We were impressed, but to say that not all these changes were met with enthusiasm would be an understatement. And so, despite huge sales in Japan and worldwide (well over six million copies to date), this sequel feels almost like an attempt to 'fix' the last Final Fantasy title.
Square Enix has gone out of its way, in fact, to highlight how changes were made based on players’ feedback. Sadly, though, we found that not all of the changes made work to the game’s advantage.
Most importantly of all, the hours of linear gameplay in XIII have been completely ditched in favour of an impressively open environment. Rather than trekking from one location to the next, XIII-2 sees your characters leaping about space and time via ‘gates’ that allow you to visit not only different locations but the same locations at different times in history.
These gates are unlocked progressively, of course, but it’s not long before you have a choice of places to explore. And, once you’ve jumped through, the environments themselves are impressively large and open, giving plenty of room to explore, fight, or simply gawp at the scenery – but more on that later. You can even reset and revisit locations, allowing you to replay sections as if you'd never been there before to see if you can do better.
Non player characters in XIII were few and far between but, again in response to demand, XIII-2 reintroduces towns, with people to talk to and side-quests to accomplish. These help to add to the feeling of a more open, decision-led experience, and of course help you to scoop up handy points and rewards.
The battle system also sees some tweaks. New ‘Cinematic Action’ sequences test, in a manner that’ll be familiar from many other games, your ability to quickly follow on-screen prompts, with rewards for doing so well. These sometimes appear in the middle of a boss battle, look jaw-dropping, and break the pace up nicely.
The main Active Time Battle concept from XIII returns, allowing you to either queue up attacks manually or use an automatic selection. Also returning is the clever but irritatingly-named Paradigm Shift system for switching character roles mid-fight, but now it’s limited to your two protagonists plus one from a choice of many tamed monsters.
This works well enough, except that watching a monster or robot get knocked down during battle doesn't have the same impact as a character whose backstory you've learned as the story progresses. And that ties into one of the game’s biggest problems: the characters and plot.
Although set in the same world as XIII, with a similar initial goal and the same confusing terminology – I’ve played both, at great length, and I’m still not entirely clear on who the L’Cie and Fal’Cie are – this sequel’s time-hopping plot somehow feels less engaging.
This is most likely caused by the limited character progression: in great RPGs you invest enough emotionally in the many characters who join your group to will them to the happy ending and feel shocked when they’re heartlessly killed along the route. Earlier Final Fantasy titles have accomplished both masterfully despite the limited graphics available at the time.
Final Fantasy XIII itself had a few annoying characters (step forward potential-shampoo-model Snow and squeaky-voiced Vanille), but the presence of borderline-sociopathic-sword-wielding-frownathon Lighning, grumping all the way to the bitter end, made up for both. She returns in XIII-2 but, sadly, in a more peripheral role. Instead you control her sister Serah, who is closer to the more tedious and traditional stereotype for a female JRPG character, and her time-travelling rent-a-hero companion, Noel.
To put it simply, neither are particularly interesting. And, as the two key characters in every fight, you’ll be seeing them an awful lot. The same applies to Serah’s moogle companion, who follows you like an omniscient floating marshmallow, ending every sentence with ‘kupo’. Sanrio fans will rejoice, but this alone could put off those with a low tolerance for kawaii.
And finally, we have to mention the music. Grand orchestral swoops are still present and correct, but this is mixed with a surprising number of euro-poppy tracks with blandly positive vocals and some occasional, incongruous, bursts of shouty-metal-noise. Judicious use of the volume control may be needed depending on your taste.
.. And the Pretty
Not everything has changed, of course. Visually, XIII-2 gives you everything you’d want from a mega-budget JRPG: huge, diverse environments, painstakingly realised, and suitably pyrotechnic fight sequences where beautifully animated characters can disappear entirely amid the explosions, lightning and slashing weapons. With a few levelled up characters in full flow, it's a gloriously high-definition monster-mashathon.
And that, perhaps, is where XIII-2 really does excel. Despite the unengaging lead characters and slightly distant plot, the key travelling-and-fighting mechanic of Final Fantasy survives unscathed here and is as enjoyable as ever. So, if you want a gloriously pretty game with dozens of areas to explore and enemies to fight, you’ll enjoy XIII-2 very much. And if, like many players, you found XIII’s linear progression to be too limiting, its sequel will most likely appeal to you far more.
If on the other hand you want an epic story that’s as involving as the battles along the way, you might be left just a little cold, kupo.
Read more reviews
A beautiful, huge JRPG that addresses many of the criticisms of its predecessor, but the plot and characters left us slightly cold.
Non-linear storyline, well-tweaked battle system, looks absolutely jaw-dropping
Lead characters just aren't that engaging, music is a strange mish-mash
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