I dove right into Final Fantasy XIII-2. My expectations were not high. I try to make sure that my expectations are never high when a new game comes out in one of my favorite series, and considering the fact that most long-time fans consider X-2 to be an abomination, I didn’t have much hope for this -2. That, coupled with the experience given from the demo, kept my expectations low enough for this newest game that it was simply natural for me to be pleasantly surprised. Those of you who read my “First Impressions” article will know that I had reservations about the soundtrack and distaste for the voice actor used for Mog (my favorite character in the entirety of the video game universe. I have a 32-bit pixel Mog tattoo from Final Fantasy 3 on the inside of my left wrist.) Me not liking the Mog character in a Final Fantasy game is like a sure sign that the end times have arrived.
Please be advised, that while I will do my best to keep from unveiling any important story points, there will be some spoilers in this article as discussion of the plot is essential to my analysis of enjoyment of the game.
Entirely to my surprise, the game starts out with Lightning narrating, and for a brief period of time the player is dictating Lightning’s actions, as though we will be playing as her for this adventure. The opening cinematics are gorgeous. If it was possible to improve upon Final Fantasy XIII graphics, Square Enix has done so. Lightning is fighting against an antagonist named Caius, and there is a cut scene showing him lowering a body into the water on what Lightning calls the “shores of Valhalla”. As the body touches the surface of the water, it disintegrates into dust and spirals away. Fans that have played Final Fantasy VII will feel an eerie familiarity with this scene, excepting the body’s immediate cascade into dust. We don’t know who the person is, but we will see her again later in the adventure.
Battle rages on between Lightning and the Bahamut summoned by Caius until Lightning subdues the Bahamut and a portal is opened. Through the portal falls a body that Lightning, and players that have been doing their research about this game, recognizes as Noel Kreiss. Lightning surges up to rescue him out of his freefall and they begin to talk. Eventually, Noel is tasked by Lightning to bring Serah to him. Thus begins our adventure into the world of Final Fantasy XIII-2.
The opening sequences serve as a tutorial for how to battle in the XIII universe, how to successfully complete “Cinematic Actions” and they lay the bedrock for the storyline in an engaging way. We move onto the settlement of New Bodhum and see several familiar faces, including Serah of course, and then begin learning about the controls of this new iteration of Final Fantasy. We have the first few decisions to make in “Live Triggers” where the player decides how to respond in a social interaction by choosing from four options with corresponding button presses, and we take on our first mission. The game also begins to familiarize players with the objective system, doling out goals for the player to reach and then giving rewards or progressing the storyline when one is reached.
From New Bodhum, there is only one destination to travel to. People who played the demo will immediately recognize the content in Episode 2, though there is an extra cinematic that was not shown in the demo. Once things have been taken care of there, however, a few more options open up in what is called the “Historia Crux”. The transition between Episode 1 and Episode 2 gives a glimpse into the possibility for the open-ended storyline that the game developers have been touting since details about the game were released. After completing Episode 1, the player is taken into the Historia Crux and taught how to select their next destination. Each destination in the Historia Crux is separated by region and/or time. There are multiple times of some regions, and some regions have an undefined time.
The chief complaint about Final Fantasy XIII was that the storyline and play were far too directed and rigid. It seems that Square Enix took this into account when developing XIII-2, because there are multiple endings in store and a myriad of different ways to traverse through the Historia Crux, the system or “web” of time that must be worked through on the way to story completion. The idea is that the choices players make in the timelines will affect the eventual outcome of the game. Since I have yet to complete the game, I cannot give testament to how great an effect individual actions have on the eventual outcome, but it is a compelling mystery each time I must make a choice as to how to progress.
In Episode 2, and as we were shown in the demo, the player opens up the Crystarium where Crystogen Points earned from battles will be spent on character development. Crystals are also awarded at the end of some battles, and added to the possibilities for the “Paradigm Deck” that is completely customizable. When I read about the demo and finally got a chance to play it for myself, I was sincerely concerned that collecting monster crystals for inclusion as “party members” would end up being a lot like Pokemon. I am happy to say that I needn’t have worried. The act of collecting the monsters itself is nothing like Pokemon. While you can aim for certain types of monsters by “farming” in certain areas where they are prevalent, it is random as to whether or not your efforts will be rewarded with a monster crystal at the end of battle. Monsters have their own Crystarium, as well. Instead of leveling the monster up as you would in Pokemon, it fights alongside you in battle and as you collect components you can unlock crystals in it’s Crystarium.
Monster evolution is not as flexible as character development. Each monster has it’s own set of skills that it can learn within it’s lifespan, you simply need to collect the right type of components to level it to the point of unlocking them. Whereas developing Serah and Noel has diverging paths because of the roles, the monsters learn their abilities at certain levels regardless of what type of component you use to level them. With Serah and Noel, it makes a difference what role you choose to level on which crystal. The large crystals in their crystarium represent opportunities to aim for specific bonuses, for example adding a rank in Commando on a large node will net you a +2 strength modifier. Monsters will gain a bonus at each level they gain based on the rank of Monster Material you use to upgrade them, and extra growth with the use of “potent” materials or large nodes.
Development in the crystarium for Noel and Serah is a little bit different, and a lot more confusing. Large nodes represent extra bonuses like with monsters, but instead of adding a percentage of growth to the focused stat, each role comes with it’s own bonus points when affixed to a large node. Commando provides +2 to strength, Ravager +2 to magic, Sentinel +6 to HP, and Saboteur, Synergist and Medic each give their own bonuses dependent on whether the level is even or odd. In my opinion the best strategy, however you want to level each of your characters in their roles, is to use the small nodes for Sab/Syn/Med and save leveling the Com/Rav/Sen for larger nodes, dependent upon which stat you value the most in your character. For those of you who are wondering, I have found that Serah is better with magic, and Noel is better with matters of strength: making her a better Saboteur, Ravager, and Medic, and him a better Commando, Synergist and Ravager. He makes a fair back-up medic, as well.
In the Historia Crux, there is a number below each “gate”, indicating how many fragments have been collected out of the fragments available in that area. Fragments are key items throughout the story that serve as a sort of benchmark for how far you have progressed. Some are awarded to you as part of the storyline, and others require a bit of extra effort to find or earn. The acquisition of each fragment comes with an award of Crystogen Points, and later on in the game once the Casino area is unlocked, the number of fragments you have translates into unlocking additional special abilities referred to as “Fragment Skills”. The number of fragments you have collected in a certain area is a good indicator of how much progress you have made in that area. When going back to the Historia Crux, if you find an area that has less fragments earned than fragments possible, it would be a good idea to go back and look in that location if you want to sidetrack yourself with some side quests for a while.
Twenty hours isn’t a lot in the scope of most Final Fantasy games. I can remember sinking one hundred and twenty into Final Fantasy XII alone. That being said, after only spending twenty hours on XIII-2, I am already at the end of Episode 4. From what I can tell, the game only extends to Episode 5 and a Final Episode, so I am very concerned about the value based on time playable. I will admit, however, that I have not spent a significant amount of time on side quests and that I have only 40/160 fragments. I have barely begun to scratch the surface on Chocobo Racing, also, so hopefully those two elements will translate into being able to get many more hours of enjoyment out of the game. I have grown used to the soundtrack by now, and I even like some of it. The only part of it that I still hate (and probably always will) is the semi scream metal aesthetic used for BIG boss battles. Mog’s voice has started to grow on me, too. I began thinking about it and reasoned that the voice I had associated with moogle dialogue in the past was rather young and squeaky sounding, and the voice sounds less high-pitched in later game sequences, so I am now decidedly okay with it. That’s all for now, but further analysis to come upon game completion. I will also be writing a “Help!” article to address some of the places where I was stuck in an attempt to help you, our reader, progress through the game. Leave a comment for me if there is something specific you would like me to address.