Despite a generally positive metacritic score Final Fantasy XIII was considered a disappointment by both critics and fans of the series.
The narrative was convoluted and unfocused, requiring players to read the game’s equivalent of a codex in order to understand what was even going on (Fal’Cie? Huh?). It certainly didn’t help that nearly the entire game was spent in a series of linear hallways where players grind away at a set amount of monsters until they make their way to the next cutscene as if they’re fighting on some sort of newfangled loading bar. Even when triggering a cut scene the player was only rewarded by countless melodramatic conversations that were only tangentially related to the actual plot. The game lost all sense of urgency as it instead seemed to incorporate the “go grind in the forest” part of Japanese RPGs directly into the story.
Aside from being ludicrously pretty, perhaps the only redeeming part of Final Fantasy XIII was the new combat system. Menu-based RPG combat is very repetitive by nature, requiring the player to access the same drop down menus over and over again like some blogger that never learned their hotkeys. We were instead given the paradigm system, where every character had multiple classes that you could switch between on the fly. Most of the actual combat was more or less automated, so the strategy revolved around making sure that all of your party members were in the right class at the right time. This led to much faster fights and some pretty frantic boss encounters that managed to be memorable even if they were irrelevant to any actual plot. It’s easy to see why Square Enix would hold onto this specific feature in the sequel.
We rejoin our heroes in the mystical land of Cocoon and Pulse a few years after the events of Final Fantasy XIII. Well, we don’t really rejoin our heroes as much as be treated to a chain of cameos of every minor character that survived the first game. Things aren’t looking especially good when you take control of Serah, who was less of a character and more of a plot device in the first game. Someone has altered the timeline and removed Lightning altogether, but no matter what Serah says she can’t get anyone to believe her about this. A time traveler named Noel kicks things off when he materializes on her doorstep and takes her on a voyage through the ages in his TARDIS-equivalent on a quest to find her lost sister.
If this was the entire premise I would have enjoyed the more personal story, but instead events need to put Cocoon in jeopardy in order to make things seem more epic. My issue with this is that after going through the story of two entire games in this world I still have no reason to think that Cocoon is worth saving. The place was only created for nefarious reasons and nothing but bad stuff happens up there. The people of Cocoon make Pulse, the planet, seem like some sort of dangerous wilderness, but there are peaceful and advanced settlements on the surface of Pulse in both games. In fact, pretty much every happy event in the entire story so far has taken place on Pulse while Cocoon is a realm of suffering an genocide. We are now expected to believe that all of the human race will be eventually wiped out if Cocoon falls, but are given no real explanation as to why Cocoon matters aside from the plot just saying that it does.
Now we’ve gone from a personal story to another Save The World epic. Okay, I can deal with that. Dragon Age: Origins certainly showed me that a generic premise doesn’t mean a bad story so I push on. Unfortunately the narrative of XIII-2 is just as unfocused as that of XIII, if not worse. Noel and Serah spend almost the entire game jumping through time at random with no idea where they’re going and with no plan. Hopping on a tour bus around the island of Hawaii while sitting next to a pink-haired girl that frequently says “maybe we’ll find Lightning here” would accurately depict the majority of the game. This was made especially clear when I continued to explore previously ignored areas after I had already beaten the game and kept triggering conversations where Serah thought she could find clues to her sister’s whereabouts. I actually found myself happy whenever the Cocoon plot would make a return because trying to stop Thing Trying To Knock It Over XIV was at least more interesting than the random sightseeing.
The sense of randomness in the plot never really lets up, and I didn’t even realize I was playing the last level of the game until I was watching a bunch of dramatic CG and fighting a multi-form final boss. After the big showdown the story just sort of ends. It’s very abrupt and unsatisfying, and the plot is left without any real resolution. The “to be continued” makes it clear that anyone who has somehow gotten invested in the story is going to have to pay for DLC or maybe even a third game if they want to see the ending.
One thing that was certainly an improvement over the first game was the introduction of an antagonist. In XIII your party was mostly just hunted down by a society in general and there was no clear baddie to go after until the very end of the game. In XIII-2 you meet the villain almost immediately and have definite reasons to try and stop him. Having such a target gives the generally vague story at least one clear line of focus. The game tries to be all enigmatic about his motives, but once they’re revealed you realize that they’re completely nonsensical and absurd. It’s both simpler and entirely accurate to just say he’s loony. I have to assume that because the forces driving his actions range from unexplained to contradictory. This becomes a theme.
The most frequently visited plot point is the ongoing issue of “paradoxes.” What is a paradox? I could tell you how they’re handled in Doctor Who, Back to the Future, and even Metal Gear Solid, but Final Fantasy XIII-2 doesn’t seem to use any of those versions. Paradoxes are never clearly defined in this game even though they show up in almost every level, and they’re used mostly as a cheap cop out to explain why you can’t complete everything in a particular place until you take care of something arbitrary elsewhere. It just feels like lazy writing when the resolution of major plot points are only given the one word explanation of “paradox” before moving on, and a XIII-2 paradox is now responsible for one of the worst cases of deus ex machina I’ve experienced so far in a game. Final Fantasy XIII-2 also can’t seem to figure out how to handle parallel time lines. The player is allowed to continually travel from one history to another while being told multiple times that parallel time lines do not exist. I don’t normally like to focus so heavily on the story of a game, but when it’s such a large focus of the game and handled so haphazardly it’s hard to talk about anything else.
That’s not to say that things are all bad in Final Fantasy XIII-2. I have a tendency to not finish eastern-styled RPGs because some design decisions makes them seem unplayable to me, but none of that is in this game. Players can leave an area at any time to check out another one, so it’s impossible to get permanently trapped with a situation that your party isn’t prepared for. You can also save at any time, so no tough boss or poorly spaced save point will force you to replay the previous hour of content.
Exploration is actually pretty fun. The world is beautiful and roaming around in search of collectibles and rare monsters feels rewarding. It all proves to be unnecessary, but if you’re the kind of person that likes to play RPGs for the sake of RPGs then it’s more than enough of an excuse to sink a few dozen hours into getting everything. It’s a shame that the game feels so rushed because I would have loved to have more areas to run around in. The web of stages seems expansive at first, but players will quickly realize that the time travel gimmick is used as an excuse to recycle the same level two or three times over. There are times where the implementation of this is done well, and you’ll get to see an area in a different season with new paths uncovered through the passage of time. Unfortunately in most cases it’s just the exact same map at a different time of day where these annoying, floating road block signs have been moved from one path to another.
The level select web also could have done with some reorganizing. It just seems logical to me that you would orgainize something like this with early dates on the left and later dates on the right. Maybe make little paths that connect a location at one time to the same location at a different time. Instead we’re given a seemingly randomly clustered mess of levels whose distribution and connections make no sense. Koei Techmo was able to figure this sort of thing out just fine in Warriors Orochi 3.
There are numerous side quests along the way, but these rarely feature any actual side content. I found that accepting them all before playing through a dungeon the way that I normally would was enough to complete most of them. This feature was likely an afterthought at most.
When I said before that exploration and collecting is unnecessary it was because as a whole Final Fantasy XIII-2 is too easy. In all of my time with the game my group only died twice: once against a rare monster and once against the final boss. It would be one thing if I was incredible at the game, but all I really did was quickly set up a basic offensive paradigm along with a defensive healing one that I could lean on when things got a bit rough. Random encounters almost exclusively boiled down to me mashing the “A” button for 30 seconds until everything died, and the game praised me with five star ratings. I only had to heal during boss fights, and even those encounters rarely gave me anything interesting to do. In the previous game there were some pretty tough bosses that really forced the player to understand the mechanics of the new combat system in order to succeed. In XIII-2 the game seems to want to just let you beat it so you can get on to the next scene. I made no attempt to grind at any point, but I constantly felt like I was over-leveled compared to the enemies I was facing.
This is a problem because the XIII combat system was a streamlining of the traditional menu combat system that allowed for more difficult and fast paced combat. When fights cease to be challenging it devolves into simply being the most repetitive and tedious form of menu combat. Mashing the kill button for an entire fight actually takes less thought than even the most basic hack’n’slash titles where the play at least has to deal with moving their character around and blocking.
Players can capture monsters and train them to become more powerful as the third member of the party. I amassed quite a collection of them, but the difficulty level never seemed to demand that I bother switching from the first creatures of each class that I found. I’ve heard there’s a system where you can combine monsters in some way to make new ones or power them up. I never had any reason to investigate this feature as I breezed through everything without it.
The feeling that the game was rushed never really goes away with the haphazardly connected plot, repeating environments, low quality NPC models, irregularities in level design, and abrupt ending. Considering how long it usually takes Square Enix to make a new game, Final Fantasy XIII-2 seems to have been pushed out a breakneck speed. It’s clear that they just wanted to crank out a new game as quickly as they could to capitalize on the success of the previous title, and the time travel gimmick was the perfect excuse. It let them reuse assets constantly, serving as an explanation for what often happens in lower budget or rushed RPGs, and it allowed them to rewrite the ending of the previous title to be more open ended for expansion.
For this reason it’s actually kind of insulting how many placeholders there are for DLC. There’s a costume changing menu that only has additional options if you pay for them at three dollars a pop. In the middle of the adventure you encounter a coliseum that is completely empty unless you pay for bosses to face there. Hovering over casino level on the web even shows a preview video of content with Sazh that costs five dollars to play. For all I know the real ending of the story could be DLC in the future. When the shortest Final Fantasy title I’ve ever played asks me to pay for additional content, I decline.
All in all Final Fantasy XIII-2 isn’t a terrible game, it’s just not a good one. It’s a RPG that never does anything to hinder the player’s experience, but it also fails to do anything memorable or engaging. Die hard Final Fantasy fans and players clamoring for another RPG of any kind will find a competently made one here, but nothing more. Yep, that sure was a RPG right there. Totally. Moving on.