While it’s always cool to dislike the latest Final Fantasy game (people have done this with every incarnation since IX), and look to past incarnations with rose-tinted specs, there were certainly valid reasons to pour scorn upon the thirteenth instalment. The game was linear, very linear in fact. Beside a single, admittedly large area full of mainly endgame sidequests, Final Fantasy XIII lead you by the hand on one very narrow route, pretty much all the way to the end.
Plot-wise, it was the standard Final Fantasy fare, with some of the characters leaning that little bit too far over the line of annoyance. I personally played the game through to the end only in Japanese (playing less than half of the English version when it was eventually released), and though I can see where the haters are coming from, I’m willing to admit that I still enjoyed FFXIII more than most other games I played in 2009/10. The RPG elements may have been stripped back to the bone, but the real meat of the title, the battle system was consistently enjoyable and engaging. The visuals were also rather nice.
With Square-Enix pretty much making it public that constraints on development time made them unable to produce the full game they’d wanted Final Fantasy XIII to be, a sequel was expected, and indeed delivered in the form of Final Fantasy XIII-2 on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The last Final Fantasy game to receive a similarly numbered follow-up was Final Fantasy X on the PS2. X-2’s costume-changing “girl power” antics wrapped around an RPG constructed entirely of minigames and sub-quests received mixed criticism, but did at least try something new. The question with this latest sequel stood; would XIII-2 be a fully-qualified game in its own right, or merely the bits that were lopped off XIII, a full retail-priced expansion?
One of the main cosmetic changes to this sequel is that despite Lightning appearing predominantly in most of the promotional material, wearing some shiny, impractical armour, she is not the protagonist of Final Fantasy XIII-2. Indeed, none of XIII’s six main playable characters take the lead role, this is instead awarded to Lightning’s younger sister, Serah. Serah is joined by Noel (a generic angsty male Square-Enix character from the future), and Lightning herself swaps roles with Serah, with reaching/rescuing her simply one of the objectives of the larger quest. The story takes place not too long after Final Fantasy XIII and, not wanting to spoil the ending for any of those still meaning to pick this game up, things are beginning to go a bit pear-shaped. Aggressive monsters that shouldn’t belong in the timeline are appearing, and various paradoxes are occurring.Fighting a battle in Valhalla, at the end of time with new antagonist Caius, Lightning sends Noel on a quest to join forces with her sister, and begin to repair the timeline and save the grim future. What ensues is a series of various missions set in multiple locations and time periods up and down this time-line.
The monster system is also key to future Final Fantasy XIII-2 downloadable content, with battles against catchable members of the Final Fantasy XIII cast then being selectable as a monster in the players party. With very little changes, the battle system is as good, if not slightly better than that of XIII. The paradigm shifting is quick moving, the transitions to and from the field are painless, and there’s still an addictive feeling to staggering enemies, then spending the gained CP on levelling up your party. Hopefully Square-Enix will be able to pull something different, yet similarly fresh out of the bag for whatever the next main single player Final Fantasy game will be.
All criticisms aside, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is still a fun and surprisingly engaging console J-RPG, which appears to have won over many of those who found XIII hard to enjoy. The plot, while a bit of a weak mess, still compelled me to the goal, and the inclusion of side-quests and various minigames (including a version of Final Fantasy VII’s Chocobo Racing) made the package feel more polished and worthwhile as a game. With Square-Enix having a clear DLC release plan, the shape XIII-2 will take in the future is still open to question, but as an out-of-the-box game, it’s sure to satisfy fans of the series a lot more than its predecessor managed to.