Time travel is a complex subject that has been explored in books, flims, television shows, and even video games. No one knows if it will ever be possible for humans to actually accomplish time travel, but it has not stopped the world from contemplating the possiblities. The major reason people like the idea of time travel is because it allows for them to have another chance at correcting a previous error. Whether it be to fix a failed relationship or save someone from an uncertain death, everyone at some point has thought “I wish I could go back and fix that.” Square-Enix ironically chose to use a time travel convention in their latest video game as well. It is almost as if they were metaphorically apologizing to Final Fantasy fans for the bad choices many felt Square-Enix made on the first Final Fantasy title of this generation of consoles, FFXIII. FF XIII was loathed by many fans for being too linear and having a story that was too convoluted for its own good. Personally, I liked FF XIII and everything it had to offer. I did not buy the game when it first came out, so I knew to expect a very linear adventure when I popped the first disc of XIII. FF XIII-2 attempts to reedem itself with less story (the game fits nicely on one disc,) time travel that provides a lot of exploration, and great additions to the battle system. The only thing left, is to open a time gate and find out if Square-Enix has prevailed in changing everyone’s minds on the series.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 takes place three years after the fall of Cocoon. Lightning, the protagonist from the first game, is stuck in “Valhalla” a world without time, fighting a man named Caius. Noel Kreiss appears in Valhalla from a time gate, and Lightning sends him back in time to find her little sister Serah. Serah is the only person that remembers Lightning returning after the final events of XIII. As Serah and Noel venture across time to various lands and parallel worlds, they discover that the reason everyone survived the final events of XIII was because the “Goddess Etro” saved them. Etro’s decision to save Cocoon’s warriors had a damaging effect on time itself. The timeline was warped by Etro’s efforts, and now Serah, Noel, and “Mog” the Moogle must travel through time to find Lightning and set the warped timeline straight. For the record, I really liked the inclusion of Mog and did not find him annoying at all. They even include a small side story about him if you choose to visit Oerba 300 and 400 AF late in the game.
The main storyline provides a good 30 hours of play time if players choose to do nothing else but follow everything in chronological order. However, if players take the time to discover the numerous sidequests, the 160 crystal fragments, many parallel universes, and the eight paradox endings they could get 60 to 80 hours out of XIII-2 rather easily. I chose for the latter experience and wound up with 130 fragments by the time I saw the credits roll. Each parallel world has its own side story that contributes to the over-arching “save the timeline” theme, and I felt that I learned a lot more by doing all the extra work. So, these extra explorable locations are worth a player’s time if they want a richer gaming experience from FF XIII-2. I really enjoyed the story, but my favorite video game of all-time is Chrono Trigger, so I might be a little biased. I do feel that they tried too hard to tie everything you do to the story. As almost everything that happens is because of some “paradox” or because you changed something in time. It makes sense most of the time, but there are points where you may wonder? Is a paradox the reason for everything in FF XIII-2. The main villan Caius however is a very interesting figure, who at times can even make you feel sorry for his cursed immortal fate of protecting the seeress. Caius is probably the most compelling villan the series has had since Sepiroth. I do wish the game had a little more Sazh in it though, he was probably the most compelling character in XIII and only shows up in a few cutscenes towards the end. At least you do get to play as Lightning for a little while and Snow joins the team as an A.I. controlled character during the story as well.
Many people have their opinion about the ending, and I do not mind the cliffhanger ending if it winds up that Square-Enix is planning a Final Fantasy XIII-3 in the near future. Square-Enix has already stated they will be adding side stories about Snow, Sazh, and Lightning as DLC, who are some of the best characters in the series. However, I do think Square would be milking their franchise, if they decide to add the true ending in later. The only reason I am saying this is because any decision by Square-Enix to add a “true ending” by future DLC will affect the review score of this game for me. Square-Enix has the right to do whatever they want with their games, but I feel it benefits the series more to have us go through one more grand adventure in the XIII saga. Why charge players $20 or $30 to add another four or five hours to the story, just to give us a “real” ending? They could have just added that into the disc itself. One more game gives players a chance to have a final opportunity to play with all these characters they’ve invested their time in, and have it end nicely when it is all over. Many people play RPG’s for the story, but there is more to XIII-2 than traveling through time to save Cocoon.
Square-Enix has brought a lot of change to XIII-2 that many haters of the first game will wish was included in XIII. The linearity of XIII has been replaced by beautiful large land masses that encourage exploration by including many item spheres, side quests, and multiple branching paths for players to find on each map. Most of these locations also include different sets of monsters to kill, depending on which branching path players decide to take on their journey through said map. Mog uses his “Moogle Hunt” and “Moogle Throw” abilities to help players find hidden treasures and special artefacts, these wild artefacts help players gain access to side stories in XIII-2. As is the custom in most Final Fantasy titles, the worlds get larger, more beautiful, and more complex as the story unfolds. The final Academia level uses the new Jump button to great effect by giving players a healthy dose of maze platforming, before going through the final moments of the game. Square-Enix has also given fans a nice ode to FF VII with a “Gold Saucer” style casino called “Serendipity.” In Serendipity players can race Chocobos, play with slot machines, and collect fragment skills from a mystic. Serendipity offers a nice break from the action and gives dedicated players a chance to obtain some cool prizes as well. The game is just a joy to watch unfold as the characters are extremely well animated, the Academia locale in particular could be the way cities are designed in the future, and the scenes at the beginning of the game with Lightning and Caius show that Square-Enix can still wow you with great CG. Square-Enix have always made their games graphical marvels and XIII-2 is no different.
I loved exploring the worlds of XIII-2. You gain a map of the area by talking to a NPC or finding a sphere rather early in each place you visit, which makes looking for treasure a breeze. There are also plenty of NPC’s around to talk to and sometimes “Live Triggers” will appear to provide players a chance to ask questions and respond with funny answers. The answers players choose will determine the award they receive at the end of the map. The NPC’s also offer Serah and Noel various sidequests to complete. Most of the sidequests are either fetching an item or defeating a certain nasty monster, but there are also times where players are asked to complete complex puzzles as well.
There are three types of puzzles, one asks players to connect colored crystals together to form a picture of a monster, the second puzzle type makes players have to figure out the best path to collecting all the crystals in a stage, and the third type is a clock puzzle. The puzzles can be quite frustrating for those with little patience, especially the clock puzzles. These randomly generated clock puzzles require a lot of thought and can be rather challenging once you get into the higher number switches. I thought it was a nice bit of ingenuity on Square’s part to include these puzzles to give players another way to advance parts of the story besides just battling all the time. There is also a merchant that follows Serah and Noel around the world by the name of Chocolina. She allows players to buy weapons, items, materials, and crafts special accessories based on monster drops. I think the return of a traveling merchant is much better for Final Fantasy, then having everything be done at a save point. Oh yeah, save points have been removed for XIII-2 and players can just save at any time.
The battle system was the one thing about XIII that most fans enjoyed. So, Square-Enix decided to leave the battle system mostly intact and make three key additions to it. The first change, is that players have the ability to widen or narrow the focus of each paradigm. Players can decide to make each character attack one monster at a time or widen the battle by having each character focus on different monsters. The paradigm shift system returns and it is more fluid than many fans may remember. Square-Enix thankfully removed the paradigm animations from the first game in order to allow for more impactful shifting. It is now possible for players to switch to defensive paradigms at the exact correct moment to block a heavy attack from an enemy. It also makes battles faster because players can also choose to keep laying the smackdown on their enemies until they are vanquished. There is still plenty of strategy though as under-leveled parties may have to start in a defensive paradigm and systematically block attacks, rather than just go all out aggressive.
Battles begin a bit differently than in XIII. Mog has a clock that changes colors once a random monster appears on the screen. It is up to you to locate the monsters quickly and press A to gain a preemptive strike on an enemy before they run into you. If players do not find monsters on-time they might not be able to retry a battle and will see a “game over” screen if the arrow lands on red and they do not beat said monster. I liked this little addition to the game, but there did not seem to be a huge penalty if I did not land a preemptive strike. Yellow makes a battle start normally and many times Serah and Noel would still beat them to the starting line. If you lose to a monster when the clock is red, all that happens is you restart the game from the exact point before the monster appeared. It almost made me not care about what color the clock landed on. If it wasn’t because my party gains haste for two rounds if you start the battle on green I wouldn’t have bothered to make sure I hit ‘A’ quickly.
Protection for Serah and Noel is not as easy as it was in XIII. Armor now has an associated COST with it that limits the amount of things that can be equipped on the two heroes. The COST can only be advanced up to 100 points for each character and makes players have to think about what’s most important when it comes to armor. Even though I think it is better than XIII’s weapon upgrade system, I do feel that this made weapons and armor an afterthought for the entire game. As long as players focus on the Crystarium and buy the new weapons in the shop when they become available they will be fine.
Players can also change the leader of their party at will during battle. In XIII, players had to choose their party leader before battle and if they died the game was over. Now, if Serah dies, Noel will just take over for her until you can revive her.
The developers have also added a Pokemon’ type monster catching system that gives players the ability to obtain almost any monster in the game and use them as part of their party. The monsters have roles similar to Serah and Noel, but can only keep the same role throughout the entire adventure. It does add a strategy element to the formation of one’s party. Players must decide whether they want another strong “Commando” to put more muscle into their party along with Noel, or if they want a nice “Medic” monster to heal the whole party while Serah and Noel kick some butt. These monsters also have limit breaks called “Feral Links” that require a small QTE to activate and can do damage to an enemy or apply status effects to your party. The monsters can also be leveled up through the Crystarium with monster materials that can be bought in Chocolina’s shop or received from enemy drops. Each monster is different in how it levels as well, some of them only reach level 20 and others can make it to level 99. Monsters can also be adorned with stuff, given nicknames, and infused with other monsters, to give the remaining monster better abilities. This monster system is a welcome surprise addition to the FF series. It does feel different than Pokemon’ though because the monsters are mainly there to be a third member of your party, not to “catch em all” as players did in the Pokemon’ games.
The Crystarium is also a little different than many fans may remember it from the first game. There is no longer a grid where players choose which skills they want to develop in each ability, all six of the role abilities can be learned by both Serah and Noel, and each one of them have levels. Each role ability is maxed out at 99 and most of the time Serah and Noel will gain generic boosts every time they gain a level through the use of accumulated CP gained in battle. What makes XIII-2’s Crystarium great, is that attacks, spells, and other things have levels where players obtain them similar to older games in the Final Fantasy series. There are also added bonuses Serah and Noel receive for clearing a ring of the Crystarium. In XIII-2 players have the choice to raise the COST level of a character, add to their ATB gauge, or receive a permanent boost to a certain role ability as well. I really liked this change to the Crystarium as things are a bit more streamlined and you can focus more on battling and less on trying to get to some point on a grid.
Square-Enix also added an interactive element to boss battle cutscenes. In-between or after a boss fight, a cinematic action may occur that asks players to flip joysticks or press button to do additional damage to a boss. If players complete the cinematic actions perfectly, they will also receive a special bonus as well. Sure, these are nothing more than glorified QTE’s but they make people pay attention to cutscenes. Some of these QTE’s also give players choices on how they want to attack certain enemies and I think this provides other game developers with new ways to use QTE’s in a more positive manner.
The only aspect of FF XIII-2 that I felt was lacking is a great soundtrack. Mr. Uematsu where have you gone? The Final Fantasy series is not the same without you. XIII had a few vocal tracks but it was still mostly classical and instrumental tracks that populated the game. XIII-2 has a lot of vocal tracks that mostly talk about “time and space” or something similar to those two concepts. As a person that has played every FF title, it made me cringe to hear a lot of these songs play-on in the background as I traveresed through a map. Thankfully, the battle themes are quite good and eventually a monster would show up so I could cleanse my ears. A lot of the time, I would play my own music if I couldn’t bear the song any longer. I just found a lot of the music to be annoying and distracted me from the gaming experience. So, if you happened to like the soundtrack, that’s great, but it just was not my cup of tea. The actual main theme of the game I didn’t mind, but a lot of the other vocal stuff made me want to just play the game on mute. It really makes me miss the days when you knew that a Final Fantasy game meant more fantastic music that would get stuck in your head for weeks. The switch to a new console generation has led music to be a forgotten art for Square-Enix, which is quite sad. At least the voice acting and sound effects are really strong though, so those things make up for the lacking soundtrack. Ariel Winter of “Modern Family” fame does the voice of “Mog” but you probably won’t be able to tell it’s her talking.
+ Exploration and Choice are abundant in XIII-2
+ The Time Traveling Story is an engrossing 30 hours
+ The game provides plenty of sidequests and side stories that could give fans 60 to 80 hours of total gameplay
+ Fans are rewarded for completing everything with eight paradox endings and a secret ending
+ The Battle System has been improved by adding monsters as a third party member
+ Unique and challenging puzzles offer a nice break from the action
+ There is a promise of future side stories starring Snow, Sazh, and Lightning
– Fans may hate the “To Be Continued” ending
– The “true ending” may be revealed in a XIII-3 or even worse a DLC addition
– The soundtrack has too many vocal tracks that distract from the gaming experience
– Certain fans may dislike what they did to the Crystarium
– Most of the memorable characters from XIII are absent for a majority of the game
The final taste in your mouth may not be good if you dislike the way XIII-2 ends. However, it does not take away the fact that Square-Enix listened to their fans and gave them the game FF XIII should have been. The sprawling land masses and many sidequests that populate the time traveling story add a lot to the experience. XIII-2 has fast paced battles, a story that takes away the complexity of XIII and streamlines it a bit more, and even some fairly challenging puzzles as well. A lot of people are not happy with Square-Enix unless they make a classic old school FF title or just remake FF VII. However, for those that are willing to give FF XIII-2 a chance, you won’t be disappointed. If you disliked XIII for various reasons or liked XIII as I did, giving XIII-2 a shot would not be the worst thing you could do.