Nope, still not Final...
Posted 1 year ago By kingquagmire - David Collins
Final Fantasy, as a franchise, is in a precarious position. In fact, it has been for some time now, with only its pedigree and nostalgic fanbase keeping it from tumbling off of a high cliff into the bowels of gaming oblivion. The evolution of the series has been received with a mixed heart by fans and critics alike, with the last entry - Final Fantasy XIII - being the center of some of the most heated debates ever seen in the venerable series’ history. Many argue that it is straying away from its role play roots. That, combined with how diluted the brand has become with a vast array of spin-offs, has lead many to wish it really would be the ‘Final’ Fantasy. Will XIII-2 bring the series back to the limelight? After spending some time with it, I believe it will, though not in the way you might think...
The story kicks off three years after the end of the Final Fantasy XIII. Cocoon has fallen. Lightning is presumed dead, and the survivors are making every effort to rebuild their lives on Pulse. As soon as the game begins, we find that Lightning lives, though not during the current time (she’s in Valhalla, a sort of ‘End of the Universe/Time’). A battle pitting her against the new big bad, Caius Ballad, ends up drawing Noel Kreiss (another new character to the series) into the realm long enough for her to warn him of an impending doom set to befall Pulse, and he will need to go back to find her sister Sereh, as they are the only two who can stop it before it comes to fruition. Confused? Really, I just glossed over the first few minutes. There’s a lot more to unfold, with loads of time jumping for good measure. But don’t let that throw you off. The story here is wonderfully told and while my patchwork intro may sound befuddling, it unfolds so nicely that you will have no problem staying on point the entire time.
"If you take XIII-2 and grade it on its own merits, it stands out as a fantastic game. But, if you walk in looking for some semblance of what made the series a household name in the RPG world, you’ll be sorely disappointed."
Noel is sent back to present-day Pulse. He meets up with Sereh, intent on protecting her, as directed by Lightning. Memories are a bit hazy, but soon we find that Noel is from 700 years in the future, a future that could very well never occur, depending on how things shake out during this journey, and since he’s in past, his memories are already disappearing. Right after Noel arrives, time disruptions begin plaguing Pulse. This, along with Noel’s appearance and his somewhat muddy recollection of things, is what kicks off their adventure, leaving behind everyone Sereh loves in pursuit of the truth about the fate of her sister, and what’s causing all the time portals.
Again though, I’m just glossing here. regardless of the various opinions on the franchise, if there’s one stalwart caveat that has always been Final Fantasy’s strongsuit, it’s the story telling. Happily, I can say that XIII-2 is no different, and is in fact one of the better narratives the series has seen in recent years. In typical JRPG fashion, the dialog and scripting does get a little melodramatic at times, but on the whole, it is kept to a minimum. Every plot point unfolds fluidly, making it a minimal effort to follow along. However, this does lead me to one of the sore spots this franchise has been getting dinged for over the last few entries: Character Development.
Traditional RPGs put a large focus on individual character development. This makes sense, as by definition, role playing is you...um...playing a role. So the need to have the flexibility to develop each character individually is paramount. Here, your ability to do that is fairly limited, with a lot of the typical individual traits being melded into a more general approach. Upgrading your character equals you sinking copious amounts of CP into a web-ish star map, and each choice is broken down by battle discipline (using the Paradigm Shift system from before). That’s about it. The focus is really on the party itself, and how well you manage to sync them. Instead of playing a role, players are journeying through an experience, built by Square Enix, which demands that their decisions are more all encompassing, affecting the entire party, rather than individual growth. It has taken me the last several games in this long running series to really grasp what direction Square Enix wants it to go, but now that I have, my complaints about them diverting away from traditional role play are much less heated. We aren’t role playing a character. We are experiencing a story.
As I said, the Battle system brings back the Paradigm Shift, which again, now that I’m seeing it in a different perspective, it’s much easier for me to appreciate. The intricacies involved with harnessing the various disciplines and combining them to the greatest effect is incredibly strategic, especially when one takes into account the constant shifting during each battle. It isn’t about having the biggest and best sword - although there is plenty of loot to be had. No, it’s about finding the best strategies for each foe, which usually means shifting often depending on the foe and how often they themselves are shifting their stance and/or means of attack. Of course, you can opt in for an Auto-Battle, though tedium will kick in before too long should you stay on that path. Monsters no longer free-roam, now appearing in a limited time fashion, and have a limited range as well. Should you want the battle, and attack them first, you’ll get the jump on them. Hesitate, and they’ll get the jump on you. Or, should you want to avoid it, just quickly get out of range and you’ll be all set.
The rest of the ATB system is pretty much the same as before, except for a couple of key adjustments that make FFXIII-2 truly stand out. First, QTEs (Quick Time Events) are much more prevalent, especially when facing off with the more difficult foes. Usually I fret over these, as they detract from the strategy, though here they are dispersed in such a way as it brings variety to the battle while leaving the brainwork still in place. Second, the Square Enix team has taken a cue from the Monster Hunter franchise, now allowing you to capture monsters you’ve fought, and adding them to your party. Each battle is comprised of two characters and one monster. These creatures can be developed the same as the player characters, but do add another layer to the Paradigm strategies, making this the most interesting combat system the series has seen in quite some time. Just as a forewarning, you will have to sink in about 20 hours before the beauty of the system really opens up. In fact, everything begins slow. The battle system, the story, the gameplay, etc... It was the same for FF XIII, so I’m beginning to wonder if this is the new “grinding” for today’s gamer.
As this is a Square Enix game, do I really need to comment on the eye candy? With each new addition to the primary series, Square Enix manages to push the envelope in visual fidelity, and XIII-2 is no exception. Simply put, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is absolutely gorgeous. Stunning environments, lifelike character models, well detailed and inventive monsters....yeah, pretty much everything you expect from a Final Fantasy game. The production values here are readily apparent, from the title screen to the ‘Last time on Final Fantasy XIII-2’ episodic-ish cut scene you are treated to every time you return to the game. Naturally, the audio is also on par with the franchise’s pedigree, with a sweeping score that enhances the narrative in all the right ways. Like I said, we’ve moved beyond the traditional RPG days, so sound effects aren’t quite as prevalent as they were back during FF’s early years (who can forget the first time they heard the water drips echoing off the cave walls in Final Fantasy III??). Taking its place in the spotlight is the score, and it completes the experience that Square Enix is trying to take you through admirably.
I honestly can’t bash on Final Fantasy XIII-2. Granted, the traditions that this franchise helped define, and in some cases create, are no where to be seen here. However, is that really a bad thing? If you take XIII-2 and grade it on its own merits, it stands out as a fantastic game. But, if you walk in looking for some semblance of what made the series a household name in the RPG world, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The narrative here is one of the best the series has seen since it was in single digits. The visuals stand as gleaming as ever. The gameplay is solid, provided you dump the expectations. It’s linear and the role play opportunities are incredibly thin. Yet, on the flip side, it’s an experience. A tale that has been spun for the sole purpose to take you on a journey, even if you don’t have anywhere near the amount of control as you once had. You are walking down a path that Square Enix wants you to walk down, seeing their sights and meeting up with their imagination. And for all the complaints of a constrained adventure, this is still an enjoyable, strategic, and fascinating ride with a colorful cast and a rich universe worth venturing through.
+ Intriguingly deep battle system
+ Wonderfully spun tale
- Slow burning
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Release Date : 2012/01/31
System : Xbox 360
Publisher : Square Enix
Developer : Square Enix
Category : Action-RPG
ESRB : T
7.0 / 10
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