When Final Fantasy XIII was finally loosed upon the waiting world in 2009, it arrived amidst a flurry of hype and excitement, and was greeted with a thundering wave of apathy. In paring the game down to two essential components – one a linear and rather tedious onward slog from cutscene to cutscene, the other a nuanced and quite brilliant battle-system – Square-Enix seemed to have failed to realise that Final Fantasy is defined by its traditions as much as it is imprisoned by them.
In trying to liberate the series from the dictatorship of the field, the village hub, the sidequest and the minigame, the game’s creators struggled to find a workable replacement. Despite selling in considerable numbers, most players seemed to feel that the game was somewhat flat and shapeless, lacking in the rustic charm of previous installments, and all the more disappointing for arriving in the wake of the dizzyingly brilliant Final Fantasy XII.
Those criticisms were clearly heard and understood in the Final Fantasy offices, for they seem to have formed the bedrock of the approach to this sequel. Rarely has a major game-creator so completely capitulated to the demands of the audience and performed such a dramatic and complete reverse. Field exploration, village hubs, sidequests and minigames all return in their full pomp and even the cutscenes have been afforded some level of interactivity. It is as though producer Kitase has been so stung by the criticism that FFXIII was simply a really long movie occasionally interrupted by a bit of walking and some fights that he has produced a game that doubles as a penitent self-criticism.
One considerable asset that FFXIII possessed was the character of Lightning, a strong female character unlike the kind of growly, sarcastic bullies that often slouch into view under that description in American and European shooters. Combining poise, anger and vulnerability with a delicate, glacial cool, she was perhaps the series’ best creation since Cloud Strife, with the added advantages of having a complete face and being able to speak. Wisely, the FFXIII-2 team have decided to build the whole game around her this time, while still recognising that absence makes the heart grow fonder.
After opening with a cataclysmic battle scene in which Lightning defends the mysterious, timeless realm of Valhalla from an invading army of monsters, the game hops over to follow her sister Serah, now living a comfortable existence in the seaside town of Bodhum. Perturbed by mis-matched memories of her sister’s fate, Serah teams-up Noel Kreiss, a time-travelling hunter from the far future, to uncover the truth of Lightning’s disappearance.
Mechanically, the previous game’s clever fight-management system remains essentially intact. The main alteration is the addition of monsters that, once defeated, can be trained and equipped in the third character slot of the party. These range from fairly puny little creatures whose main value is their healing skill to much larger beasts with devastating physical attacks. This presents a welcome tactical flexibility as well as a mildly compelling monster-levelling diversion that channels some of the compelling collect-and-upgrade gameplay of the MONSTER HUNTER series, whose influence reverberates both subtly and overtly through so many games released in Japan in the last few years.
A welcome attempt has also been made to leaven the cutscenes, of which there are many, with a light sprinkling of interactivity. This comes in two forms: quick-time events that occur during boss-fights and selectable dialogue options during quieter moments of exposition. While not the most dynamic of systems in themselves, their tiny ripple-effects are a microcosm of the game’s wider approach to the business of cause and effect which becomes much clearer in the physical structure of its world.
Unlike its predecessor, which could, not unfairly, be characterised as a journey through one extremely long corridor, FFXIII-2 has built a cascading series of interlocking hub worlds transcending time and space. Travel between areas is facilitated by gates which, once unlocked with the appropriate key, allow access to different point in history which can then be visited and revisited in the order that you choose, with actions taken in the past having a knock-on effect in the future.
Where FFXIII’s greatest ambition was to take you to the end of a road, FFXIII-2 takes you to the end of the universe. And back again. The straight line has become a diamond, glittering with many points. From a world of no choice, we come to a world of many choices. Where to go. When to go. What to do when you get there. Which shape time will take. There is a welcome generosity of spirit here, imperfect, yet experimental and quietly ambitious.
The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for the story. While containing numerous small moments of real worth and occasionally managing to blunder into something approximating real emotion, the narrative is still a fairly typical young’uns-save-the-world-and-the-ones-they-love type of narrative familiar from basically every Final Fantasy game ever made. It’s also crammed to the rafters with fist-clenchingly sentimental dialogue that sounds perfectly fine in Japanese but which grates horribly when rendered (often clumsily) into English. Fortunately, Lightning is there to hoist the entire enterprise onto her slender shoulders and lift it free of the raging floodwaters of tedium. Without her electrifying presence, we would have a much more hollow game on our hands; exceptionally well-produced and yet almost entirely unengaging.
Graphics: 5/5 - As usual, the game is a minor marvel, creating a world of delicate, achingly hip poise and charm rendered with character and warmth.
Sound: 4/5 - A high-quality production with the series’ usual flair for oddly rustic orchestral grandeur, even if it lacks any particular identity of its own.
Gameplay: 4/5 - FFXIII-2 builds mainly on its predecessor’s strengths – namely its excellent battle-system – while noodling with a number of ideas of its own. New ideas like the non-linear hub-system are engaging and pleasant, while series stalwarts like sub-quests and minigames return to put a little more meat on FFXIII’s skeletal frame. As a result, the game’s environments enjoy a little more richness and sense of place than FFXIII’s beautiful but airless museum exhibits.
Longevity: 4/5 - A decent running time, though not as epically long as some previous games in the series. The experience is given some replay value by the ability to make alterations both small (selectable dialogue options, branching boss battles) and large (changing the course of history). An extensive campaign of DLC is also promised, for better or worse.
Overall 4 out of 5
A substantial improvement on Final Fantasy XIII in all important respects, FFXIII-2 is Square-Enix’s own attempt at a journey back in time to repair the mistakes of the past. That it is merely a very good game instead of a roaring triumph is largely down to the sense of disjointment between what the series was and what it now is, a failure to find a convincing model of what it should become. In the face of FFXIII’s failures, FFXIII-2 is a retrenchment, an attempt to go back to what came before and thereby to restore some of that ancient grandeur. It has worked well enough for now, but Square should remember that all things go to dust in the end and that the time comes, eventually, to build something new.
- Elliot Mears