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2010’s Final Fantasy XIII may have sold well enough, but the perplexingly bad design decisions quickly made the title a bitter disappointment for many fans. Coupled with the disastrous launch of Final Fantasy XIV, and even publisher/developer Square Enix admitted that its legendary role-playing brand had been severely damaged.

Rather than develop an entirely new game that would typically release in 5-6 years, Square Enix sought to make use of their existing engine and team with a direct sequel. Final Fantasy XIII-2 was developed in just two years, and released in Japan in December of 2011, where it scored perfect reviews from major media outlets such as Famitsu. So far, sales have been lackluster, especially compared to XIII’s launch numbers.

With Square Enix looking to release a new Final Fantasy title every year, similar to the Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed franchises, there’s a lot riding on XIII-2’s success. But is the game’s reputation already too far gone?

Perspective
It’s important you know from the onset that Final Fantasy XIII essentially killed the Final Fantasy series for me.

Like most gamers, my fondest memories of the franchise were shaped by the epic struggle between Cloud and Sephiroth, the angsty love story between Squall and Rinoa, and all the groundbreaking CG cinematics, monster-hunting, and mesmerizing music a kid could handle. I spent countless hours mastering materia, collecting all the Tetra Master cards, and maxing out my summons–and I still get goose bumps whenever I watch the opening of Final Fantasy VIII.

Final Fantasy releases were more than just games; they were life events. They were compelling, awe-inspiring, wholly imaginative worlds to get lost in for days, weeks, or even months on end. They weren’t always perfect, but nonetheless, there was something special about them that no other franchise managed to capture.

Then that all changed.

Publisher Square Enix shifted its release schedule from a painful-but-worthwhile trickle to a full-blown assault on fans’ wallets, manufacturing poorly produced spin-offs, mobile side stories, prequels, and god-awful movies. The once-sacred Final Fantasy VII universe had been bankrupted of all integrity as if Bobby Kotick himself was at the helm, rolling in the money of confused gamers as the pristine reputation of the franchise was slowly but surely tarnished.

When Final Fantasy XIII was first revealed in 2006, it was instantly a PlayStation 3 system-seller due to the dynamic battle system, phenomenal visuals, and the fact that it was the one game you could almost be sure Square Enix wouldn’t find a way to work Sephiroth into. And three long years later, when it was finally released, it sold very well. But then people actually got home and started playing it. This was not the Final Fantasy we all knew and expected, which in a way I applauded. Square Enix was trying something new, and that worked very well for them with Final Fantasy XII, but not every experiment is a success, and Final Fantasy’s case, they tend to be spectacular failures.

So to say that Final Fantasy XIII-2 has a lot working against it is an understatement. It also doesn’t help that Final Fantasy X-2, the only other proper sequel in the history of the franchise, was half Saturday morning cartoon and half J-pop music video. And half all the “talking scenes” from Charlie’s Angels.

A fresh beginning
The limited few willing to defend Final Fantasy XIII will inevitably say, “You just have to play it for 20 hours and then it gets good,” as if that’s some kind of acceptable excuse. From the moment the game begins, Final Fantasy XIII-2 grabs a hold of you and assures you that you’re going to enjoy yourself, whether you planned on it or not. The opening sequence in XIII-2 is easily on par with the best cinematic of the original game, yet it’s all in-game and interactive, a new standard that continues until the end credits roll. The epic confrontation between Lightning, now a badass knight of Valhalla, and a mysterious antagonist, sets the stage for the controversial new story.

Serah Farron, Lightning’s sister, who was a driving force in Final Fantasy XIII but only had a few minutes of total air time, is now front and center, alongside newcomer Noel Kreiss, who has traveled back from the end of days to save the world. That’s right: time-traveling. Ugh, right? When does a movie or game or comic book or especially a TV show ever do time travel correctly, or at least coherently? Final Fantasy games are already complicated enough (I dare you to clearly explain what was happening in the final act of Final Fantasy VIII), so time travel can only exacerbate the labyrinthine narrative. Somehow, against all odds, the opposite is true. Final Fantasy XIII-2 manages to be the most succinct entry in quite some time, and through the use of paradoxes, it sometimes even makes sense.

Without giving anything away, Serah and Noel set out across time and space to find Valhalla and meet up with Lightning, who is not a playable character beyond the prologue (despite being heavily featured in marketing materials, and the game’s logo, and the cover of the box). There are roughly a dozen locations in the game, but many of these have alternate timelines to visit. For example, you can visit one location in the near future, then jump forward hundreds of years to see how things have progressed. Or perhaps you changed something and created an alternate timeline? You can then venture to that time and see if you made things worse or better. Sometimes it’s a little of both, and sometimes it’s just a bunch of different-colored mini-flans that need help finding their way home.

Cast
Whereas Final Fantasy XIII’s cast was overwhelmingly unlikable, Serah and Noel are well-developed. They’re not always sure of what they’re doing, but their bravery is unwavering. I liked playing as these characters, and wanted to follow their story through to the end. Serah’s history as a l’Cie gives her interesting perspective on the world, while Noel’s past (which is 700 years in the future, mind you) ties in to the underlying goal of the entire game, making it far more relevant than the typical backstory no one cares about otherwise. “I was just a flower girl before all this started happeni—” Shut up and summon Bahamut!

A few familiar faces will pop up from time to time, and while some are the same as they ever were, for better or worse, Hope in particular–easily Final Fantasy XIII’s most annoying character–is all grown up now. He’s much more fleshed out, and because he was such a whiny little bitch in the last game, he now has this added dimension to him. Final Fantasy XIII’s loss is XIII-2’s gain.

Every character has also been designed far more fashionably than before. Lightning in particular is sporting an awesome set of armor, but Serah and Noel’s outfits are… interesting, to say the least. Noel looks like Kingdom Hearts designer Tetsuya Nomura created a futuristic Aladdin, but Serah on the other hand has magically been bestowed with a paper-thin pop-star miniskirt. And I do mean it was “magically bestowed” upon her, as it replaces her old school girl outfit Sailor Moon-style at the beginning of the game, presumably a gift from Lightning to help her on her impending adventure. But unless Lightning is secretly a pervy 50-year-old character designer from the deepest dungeons of Square Enix Japan, it doesn’t make any sense for Serah to wear what most humans would consider, at best, a slutty sock. And why do characters wear the same clothes all the time? It’s annoying when no one ever changes their clothes throughout a single adventure, but what about when centuries have passed, and they’re still wearing the exact same thing? A small grievance, perhaps, but one I’d like video games to start taking a bit more seriously nonetheless.

Still, I was willing to overlook Serah’s outfit and a few other elements that could hardly be called realistic. While the story is generally a pretty sullen one, touching upon death and rebirth, and sometimes just death, on the flipside it also has uppity half-woman half-chocobo merchants and a “Flanborg” (you can imagine what that is if you’re a fan). Final Fantasy XIII-2 does the one thing that so many games and movies and animes fail to, which is efficiently balancing the absurd and comedic with the believable and somber moments.

Audio/Visual
A large part of what makes Final Fantasy XIII-2 so enjoyable, and especially what allows the dev team to create more likable characters and standout interactions, is the superb presentation. Final Fantasy XIII was in development for five years, using the seventh generation of Square Enix’s proprietary Crystal Tools game engine. Final Fantasy XIII-2 has clearly benefited from the additional two years of time in the oven. To say this game looks phenomenal is an understatement. I feel going on and on about a game’s visuals is pointless when the screenshots and videos speak for themselves, but suffice it to say Final Fantasy XIII-2 is one of the best looking games currently available. Not just technically, but in the character, monster, and environment design, as well as the choreography during the cinematic sequences (and not just the ones where worlds are collapsing and monsters are exploding). It’s also nice that the main antagonist isn’t an evil pope wearing a wedding veil this time around.

Final Fantasy XIII-2, like all Final Fantasy games going back to X, features top-shelf voiceover work. Serah, Noel, Lightning and Hope are particular highlights, but even the disembodied voice that intros each area from the Historia Crux is done well. Mog, the cute flying imp that morphs into Serah’s when during combat, is the one point of contention. People seem to either love him or hate him (yes, for some reason it’s a him, despite clearly being voiced by a female actress). I can understand how he could begin to grate on the nerves (and ears) pretty quickly, but I honestly didn’t mind much. Plus whenever I needed to take out some aggression, I would just throw him down a bottomless pit with the Moogle Throw skill, so there’s always that…

Lastly, the soundtrack is a definite high point, for the most part. Longtime composer Nobuo Uematsu is no longer on board, but the new composers have managed to capture that signature Final Fantasy feel while boldly exploring new genres and directions. The first track composed for XIII-2 was reportedly a rap song, and indeed there are more vocals in this game’s soundtrack than any previous Final Fantasy. Unfortunately, these vocal pieces are undeniably the black mark on an otherwise masterpiece. The thrash metal that plays during certain boss battles is a particularly bad choice, while the metal song used wild riding mutant chocobos is annoying, but still somewhat fitting.

The entire soundtrack is available as a four-disc set, and I highly recommend hunting it down if you’re a devout fan.

Combat
Final Fantasy XIII’s battle system was noted for being a bit mindless. Due to the rapid pace of the semi-turn-based active time battles (enemies do not “wait their turn” to attack like in most traditional JRPGs, so you have to act fast), an auto-battle option was added that would choose the most efficient set of spells, attacks, or abilities for you. The code behind it is actually very impressive, as the game will immediately change tactics depending on the weaknesses of an enemy, the status of allies, etc. But it requires very little skill or attention from the player.

In reality, how many RPGs ultimately boil down to spamming the attack button, or your most powerful spell, until everyone but you is dead? Final Fantasy XIII simply removes that illusion, and Final Fantasy XIII-2 doesn’t try to fix what, arguably, wasn’t broken. Almost every normal battle can and will be fought using the auto-battle command, but boss encounters require you to sit up and get more active.

This is where the Paradigm Shift system comes into play. Noel and Serah both have six roles they can choose from and level up, and can create different formations to switch between on the fly, depending on what’s needed at any given moment during a battle. Typically you’ll have a Ravager and Commando combo, which deals damage and quickly staggers enemies, making them vulnerable to air juggles and even more powerful attacks. But then you may need a Saboteur to weaken the enemy with status ailments, while powering up your own team at the same time with a Synergist. More than anything else, during tough battles you’ll need to switch in a Sentinel and a Medic, who can absorb damage and recover health respectively.

However, the combat is greatly enhanced with the inclusion of tameable monsters. Noel and Serah are on this journey alone (not counting Mog), but Lightning has granted Serah the ability to capture monsters into crystals and summon them during battle. What this essentially means is that you gain a third party member, as monsters each have one of the six roles assigned to them. You can work three monsters into your Paradigm “decks” at a time, allowing for quite a bit of diversity (though still not as much as I would have liked). Pretty much any RPG that restricts parties to a three-man team would be instantly improved by increasing that number to a quartet, but alas…

Capturing monsters doesn’t just factor into battles, but also pads the game with hours of exploration, experimentation, and monster-hunting. Often I didn’t even have any intention of using a certain monster, I literally just had to catch them all. But then other times I would see an awesome beasty that would make an excellent edition to my party. I spent more time grinding for monster crystals (since their drop rate is pretty low, based on the power or rarity of the monster) than I did leveling up Noel and Serah.

Monsters can also be leveled up, but not in the traditional sense. Instead, you have to find (or buy) rare materials which are used to progress the monster, increase its stats, and teach it new abilities. It would have been nice if monsters also gained experience through use, as it would have established a deeper bond with personal favorites. That, and finding the required materials can be very time-consuming and costly. Sometimes you’ll want to level up a certain monster just so you can infuse it into your other monsters to earn unique passive or active skills. It’s all quite expansive, and should keep players busy long after the main storyline has ended.

I’m also happy I no longer have to hunt down a copy of Final Fantasy X-2 + International, a Japanese-only release of X-2 that also featured monster taming.

Longevity
The time-traveling aspect of Final Fantasty XIII-2 removes the need for a New Game+ feature. Instead, you can travel to and from any location and any time, manipulating the timeline to replay events and boss battles however you please. There are over 160 fragments to collect, many of which are attached to a sidequest of varying depth and importance. There are nine different endings to see (though only one of them is the “true” ending), and the monster taming aspect can get as deep as you want it to. And you will need to developer powerful monster companions if you plan on tackling the game’s post-game challenges. As with any Final Fantasy title, impossibly powerful beings await in the deepest, darkest corners of the game, but at least now you’ll actually get Achievements for them.

Perhaps the most disappointing part of the entire experience is Serendipity, the poor man’s Golden Saucer. You can race chocobos and play slots here for prizes, but the systems are so mindless and half-baked, it’s really a shame. There’s also a card game at the casino, which I immediately made a b-line for. What is it poker? What is it a Tetra Master-style collectible card game? I’ll never know, since the dealer only says it will be “available in a future update.”

And that’s the other complaint. Square Enix seems to have finally discovered DLC, as entire chunks of the game have been blatantly withheld, with plans to release them at an additional cost down the road. A perfect example is the Outfits tab in the main menu. You will never obtain an extra costume throughout the entire game, so this feature is useless, unless you plan to buy the various costume packs Square Enix has been planning for months. There’s also a coliseum that is totally inactive on-disc, but will allegedly be the home of future downloadable content.

Despite the missing pieces, the main story will run you 20-30 hours. I completed it at 28, but only because I got distracted exploring optional areas and hunting down fragments. After that, there’s easily another 30-50+ hours of content to explore, and if you do it without a guide it’d take considerably longer than that.

Conclusion
Final Fantasy XIII-2 has all of the superb production values of its predecessor and none of its flaws. In fact, my two biggest complaints revolve around a half-baked casino area and questionable use of heavy metal music, which is pretty good considering the first game in the XIII trilogy damn-near killed the entire franchise. XIII-2 seems to have been designed entirely to address the many complaints of the original, and against all odds manages to do just that. Even if you don’t care about the story, the monster taming is a particular selling point; I know that the knee-jerk reaction is to blurt out “Pokemon!” and write it off as a throwaway feature, but any gamer will be hard-pressed to find fault with charging into battle alongside a golden chocobo, prototype behemoth, and 50-foot-tall cactuar.

Score: 87/100

Final Fantasy XIII-2 was released on January 31, 2012 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. An Xbox 360 version was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.

Ready to dive into Final Fantasy XIII-2? Check out GamesBeat’s game guide, with tips and tricks for winning all the chocobo races, unlocking the ultimate weapons, and more!

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