Three years ago, Lightning Farron led a mission to save the world of Cocoon, and then vanished. As far as most people are concerned, she sacrificed her life in the final battle, but her sister Serah knows differently – she remembers Lightning returning alive. Now living a new life on the surface of Pulse, Serah continues to dream of Lightning, but has no idea how to go about finding her – at least until the day a boy named Noel turns up. Claiming to be from the future, Noel has a message from Lightning, one that will prompt Serah and Lightning to travel through time in an attempt to safeguard the future of Pulse and Cocoon, and bring Lightning home once again.
After the pain of Final Fantasy XIII, it might seem that only a masochist could possibly want to play a sequel, but as someone who hails from a generation conditioned to at least try everything labelled “Final Fantasy”, it was inevitable that I would have to try this one. As it turned out, FFXIII had set the bar so low that it was very easy for this game to do better.
Serah and Noel: A Journey Through Time
Unlike FFXIII, which was one massive run down a corridor, FFXIII-2 reintroduces us to that old staple of actually being able to freely explore distinct areas. From the Historia Crux, a Doctor Who-esque time vortex, Serah and Noel (the only two playable characters in the game) are able to visit various different time periods, from 3 years after the events of FFXIII to the end of humanity some 700 years in the future. Many areas are reused for different time periods or timelines, but compared to the restrictiveness of its predecessor, the chance to explore even a limited number of maps is a breath of fresh air.
As you might expect, adventures in one time period will unlock gates leading to other times, with a smattering of optional areas thrown in amongst the compulsory ones. Within each time period, subquests exist that reward you with Fragments – 160 in total. Some of these Fragments will come your way automatically as you progress with the game, but others will require some investment of time and effort. Having expected to put in the minimum of both in order to get this game out of the way, I was surprised to find I was enjoying myself enough to want to collect even the optional Fragments. And they’re not just a meaningless number, either – as you collect more and more, various useful abilities will be unlocked.
For the truly committed, there is even the option to replay various areas and trigger different endings. And, if that isn’t enough, you can also spend your hard earned monies on acquiring various DLC chapters featuring characters from FFXIII. I’ve yet to drop any cash on this, and am led to believe the DLC is of variable quality, but it’s worth knowing the option is there – along with, of course, the obligatory set of pointless alternate costumes for the main characters (including, bizarrely, Ezio’s robes from Assassin’s Creed 2).
On the surface of it, combat in FFXIII-2 is basically the same as FFXIII, using the fake real-time system of Paradigms and ATB segments in which you issue general orders to your party and watch them jump and flip about as they carry them out. Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll see that some tweaks have been made.
For starters, even getting into battle has been altered somewhat. To explain how things work, I first have to go into some detail about Serah’s weapon. Instead of a conventional bit of kit, Serah is accompanied by Mog, a moogle who can transform into a bow for long-ranged attacks, and a sword for melee battle. Mog also has various uses in the field – not only can you use him to ferret out hidden objects and concealed treasure chests, but when an enemy is approaching, he will provide a heads-up in the form of the “Mog Clock”. The Mog Clock is basically a countdown timer that starts when an enemy appears in range – attack the enemy while it’s still green to earn a Pre-Emptive Strike, but wait until it’s red, and you’re locked into battle with no choice of running away.
The upshot of all this is that enemies are not only generally easier to avoid than they were in FFXIII (since the Mog Clock also has a range indicator that makes running away before battle commences far simpler than it ever was in FFXIII), but that you can get in far more Pre-Emptive Strikes. To compensate for this, Pre-Emptive Strikes are far less useful than they were in the original game when it comes to Staggering the enemy.
That being said, battle itself is now a lot more consistent. In the old days, normal battles were either trivially simple or incredibly long and drawn out, whilst boss battles had to be finished within a set amount of time or the game would get bored and cast Doom on you. This time around, only a handful of battles stray into frustratingly difficult territory, so that while few changes have been made to the actual battle mechanics, getting into combat is no longer painful in the way it once was.
As in FFXIII, character roles in battle are determined by Paradigms that assign them each to one of six roles, but with a key difference. As mentioned earlier, Serah and Noel are the only playable characters, so who takes up the third slot in the party? Is there even a third slot? As it turns out, there is, and in order to fill it, you’ll have to recruit monsters. Luckily, accumulating monsters in general is not difficult – although getting the exact monsters you want might be a bit trickier.
Acquiring a monster is as simple as defeating it and hoping you receive its crystal after the battle, at which point you can choose to include it in your party. Each monster specialises in one particular role (Medic, Ravager, Commando etc), and you can have up to three monsters available to switch in and out of battle at any one time. A vast array of monsters is available to gather, with skill sets and development potential ranging from limited to expansive. It’s even possible for one monster to devour another and possibly gain some of its abilities. Of course, when analysed closely, this setup is more limited than having three human characters who each have access to all rules, but it’s quite fun to have wild cats and chocobos fighting on your side nonetheless.
Veterans of FFXIII will recall that levelling up took place via the Crystarium, and yes, it’s back this time as well, albeit a little tweaked. It’s not really worth going into the specifics, but the differences make the whole system a little slicker than before, although it does take a little getting used to if you come in straight off the back of FFXIII. For monsters, however, the Crystarium works a little differently; not only is theirs necessarily more limited, but instead of using CP earned in battle to level up in the Crystarium, monsters require a steady supply of special items in order to advance. Grinding for adequate supplies of these items can be a bit tedious at times, but it’s worth it to make a kick-ass team of monsters.
If you’re the type of person who craves puzzles rather than battles, then FFXIII-2 also has something for you – although you should be careful what you wish for. For reasons that make no sense, resolving temporal paradoxes in the different time periods is achieved by solving sequences of puzzles. Three different types are available: timed ‘join the dots’ puzzles where you connect crystals to make a mini-Crystarium; clock puzzles where you have to select numbers on the clock face in the correct sequence to make them all disappear, and disappearing floor puzzles where the goal is to collect all the crystals without retracing your steps. Occasionally, these puzzles can be mildly enjoyable, but more often than not they prove to be simply tiresome – especially when Noel and Mog are heckling from the sidelines.
Unfortunately, whilst FFXIII-2’s gameplay is a lot more fun than its predecessor, it can’t be said to have made any great strides when it comes to story. Time travel stories always have to be taken with a pinch of salt anyway, but FFXIII-2 doesn’t really concern itself with investing time in a deep and meaningful plot. In all honesty, it’s best to let the details wash over you; concerning yourself with such minor details as how Flan monsters can melt a crystal pillar, for example, will just cause unnecessary stress.
Similarly, the characters, whilst overall less annoying than the cast of FFXIII (even the whiny brat Hope has grown up into a respectable scientist), are pretty paper thin, to the point where it’s hard to care about them.
The one thing FFXIII did well was its visuals, and since it’s using many of the same assets, FFXIII-2 is no different. True, there are new locations and costumes, and it’s all gorgeous to look at, but it’s not achieving anything beyond what we already experienced in the original game.
As far as music goes, FFXIII-2 feels even more lightweight than its predecessor, straying even further from its Final Fantasy roots. Over time, some of the tracks may actually go to you, but the random lapses into death metal (see this remix of the chocobo theme) are jarring at best and ear-bleeding at worst.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is not a great game. There are any number of titles out there that blow it out of the water. But unlike its predecessor, it achieves that essential goal of actually being fun to play. If you haven’t touched FFXIII, you can give this one a miss, but if you’re shackled to the name of Final Fantasy, then this one will at least provide some measure of enjoyment.