Final Fantasy XIII 2
Final Fantasy XIII 2 is a vast improvement on its cold and soulless prequel. After bold mistakes, Square Enix have come to their senses again. Chocobo…
Everyone who’s played Final Fantasy has their favourite. For this reviewer, never having played Final Fantasy VII (the agreed queen of them all), the highlights were Final Fantasy X and its sequel X-2 (the outfit-related battlesphere strategies were genius, and not sappy at all).
Every Final Fantasy game has tropes that give coherence to an otherwise splendidly brave franchise design approach of making each game utterly different to its predecessors. Whatever happens, Final Fantasy gamers will always have bouncy bird chocobos, moogles, love, loyalty, choices, uber-bosses, power, magic, robots, airships, puzzles, endless exploration, grinding and sidequests in a beautifully-rendered environment.
The initial Final Fantasy XIII got it badly wrong, removing the sidequests and exploration in order to stay true to the main character Lightning’s ‘focus’. It was a bold move, but it just didn’t work – the result felt linear and cold. What’s the point in battling monsters, bosses and saving the world if you can’t help out the little man – the forlorn character in the market square who’s lost their very favourite thing or needs you to dress as a moogle and hand out flyers against the clock?
We’re pleased to report that the game’s sequel feels as though Square Enix developers have tried their hardest to address every concern raised by players. So what do you get now?
More engaging characters
In Final Fantasy XIII, Lightning may look delicate and pink-haired but she’s an utterly single-minded warrior who’d work well as a side character but not as the game’s focus. This time round the main protagonist is her younger sister Serah, who is equally pink of hair but far more warm-natured and inexperienced. She’s lost her riot grrrl mini kilt for proper Final Fantasy togs and she is a more satisfying character to build up than Lightning. Her helpful nature is particularly well-suited to the plot (save her sister, possibly save her fiancee Snow, possibly save the future and past worlds she’s familiar with, though you’ll have to play quite far into the game to discover if it’s possible to achieve all the goals that Serah sets herself).
You can also switch party leaders so that you can fight, explore and command battle strategies as Serah’s male sidekick Snow. In some ways it’s his story as much as Serah’s – he’s from a future dependent on Serah’s actions, and the future isn’t pretty.
Final Fantasy 13-2 has done a great job here and is a massive step up from its predecessor. In order to change the past and future of her city Cocoon and the world of Pulse, Sarah must not only open up new environments but also scoot back and forth along their timelines. Quests started in one area or timeline sometimes can’t be completed without visiting another, but this creates a feeling of curiosity rather than frustration. To open up gates to potential pasts, futures and new areas, Serah has to locate artefacts. Some are as easy to find as tripping over one on a lushly grassed path. Others have to be paid for in sweat and blood, battling very convincing bosses. Serah can also participate in side quests to find fragments which enrich her understanding of the world and the plot. All very moreish, and it leaves the player feeling as if they have genuine control. You can go to casinos at the end of the universe, battle in the depths of ruins and then, when it all gets too much, return to the eco warrior surfing village where you started and hang out with your friends who’ll express amazement that you’ve done so much in the future yet – as far as they’re concerned – have returned to them only ten minutes after you left.
Sidequests are a pleasure in Final Fantasy XIII-2. Quests are usually (but not always) along the lines of: Someone’s lost their thing and they want you to go and find their thing, which may be in a different place or a different timeline. Their thing will always be very different, depending on what kind of thing it is, but it will always be found in either Crate Style A or Crate Style B. It may not sound that creative but side quests are handled well; they’re very engaging and I’ve sunk around thirty hours into them so far without quite knowing where the time went.
Rewarding character building and battle mechanics
Battle gameplay kicks arse in Final Fantasy XIII-2. You get real-time fights which keep the adrenaline up, but you can tweak your characters’ battle formations both in battle and in the field with party paradigms. You have two characters in your party, Serah and Noel, and can unlock and assign them various battle classes like Commando (fighter), Ravager (mage), Medic and Saboteur (a fun magical assasin anti-magic type class). As the game progresses you will also have the opportunity to tame monsters you beat and add them to your party, bringing it to a maximum of three. YES YOU CAN TAME CHOCOBO. Also, and this is important, you can adorn your monsters (CHOCOBO YES CHOCOBO) with tattoos, oddities and funny little hats.
Building up your battle skills, strategies, classes and monsters is hugely addictive, as is coming back to decimate that Big Bad who slightly annoyed you (okay, kicked your arse) several centuries ago. Honestly, darlings, sometimes a grudge just needs to be carried.
Art direction and Sound
Reports differ on this one. Many game critics have said the environments lack visual cohesion, and it’s a fair point, but they make up for that in beauty and variety. It’s also fun to pop back or forward along a timeline to see what a place might look like ten years in the past or three hundred years in the future. Costumes are also a cosplayer’s Nirvana: A fantastic mix of Japanese and Tribal aesthetics, I yearn for the day when looks like this come out of the cosplay conventions and onto the streets. Pick your least and most favourite politicians – and that’s who I want to see wearing this stuff. Everyone. Personally, I really liked the sound, too. The jazzy soundtrack to chocobo-riding beautifully evokes the relative safety you’ll feel on its back (monsters can’t touch you when you’re on one of these babies), and the sound effects for battles, continuity flux jumps and a host of other experiences make the world feel real and engaging.
In all, this has restored my faith in Final Fantasy, because the prequel left me as cold as a Valhallan Valkyrie’s steel blade. Hours of addictive gameplay, I still want to play just a little more, and will keep a fond eye on Square Enix in the future. They’ve just won back a fan.