I’ve jumped headlong into playing Final Fantasy XIII-2 (to anyone who’s not familiar with the larger marketing scheme behind Final Fantasy, each new entry with a Roman numeral is set in a world that’s independent of the other main games in the series; very rarely, a numbered entry will get a direct sequel, which Square Enix likes to mark very cheekily with a -2), and after about seven hours with it, I’m enjoying the game. In a lot of ways, it’s a superior experience to Final Fantasy XIII.
I should back up for a moment and explain the issues that I and a lot of other people had with FFXIII. Now, it wasn’t a bad game by any stretch, but there were elements to it that could grate mightily. For me, the most significant problem with the game was that you found yourself about halfway through the story before all of the game’s battle mechanics had been fully unlocked. What I mean is that while there were constantly new aspects of the battle system being introduced, I often felt like the game was holding me back from enjoying everything I could about its best feature. Perhaps because the battle system in FFXIII was its best feature, the developers felt that it needed to be drawn out so that players didn’t get bored with it too soon.
Besides the tight grip the game keeps on your ability to customize your party for battles throughout most of the game (I’m cool with being forced to use certain characters due to story restrictions, but sometimes it just felt absurd), there was also the issue that virtually everyone complains about: Final Fantasy XIII is perhaps the most unabashedly linear RPG ever released by Square Enix. That’s not to say that previous entries in the series haven’t been linear, but FFXIII was very upfront about the fact that in any given scenario, you had an objective, and the only thing you could do was run towards it. It’s not until the last quarter of the game that the player’s allowed any sort of open world exploration, and what we get is a beautiful, but empty, landscape where there’s literally nothing to do except fight monsters. The game’s version of sidequests revolve exclusively around hunting down and killing monsters (Final Fantasy XII had a similar mechanic, but those were not the only sidequests available in that game). It was a fun distraction for a while, but I’m being honest when I say that I just got bored with running around and killing stuff. After I finished the story, I played around with monster hunts for a little bit, but then gave up and moved on to other games.
Besides those rather glaring flaws in the game’s design (which, if I’m fair, aren’t so much flaws as just design choices that don’t appeal to me as a gamer), Final Fantasy XIII is a very solid entry in the series, and it does what I think every Final Fantasy strives to do: differentiate itself from its predecessors.
Having said all of that, I can finally explain what I’m enjoying about Final Fantasy XIII-2.
The combat system is virtually untouched from XIII as far as I can remember, though there have been some modifications to how the player’s party is constructed. Where in the first game you had a stable of six characters who had various strengths in the six battle roles (called paradigms in game) that you could pick from to create a party of three, in this game you only get two permanent party members, Serah (the little sister of Lightning, the first game’s heroine) and Noel (some dude who’s from the future). I’m still early in the game, so I haven’t progressed too far with the party customization, but I get the impression that both characters are rather well balanced across all six paradigms (though they each have unique growth trees). The third slot in your party is devoted to a roster of monsters you can capture and train (Gotta catch’em all!). Each trainable monster can only develop in one particular paradigm, but it’s possible to switch between up to three monsters in the middle of battle to have more flexibility in your party layout. I’ve been having a lot of fun trying to fine-tune my monster stable, so I’ve probably not progressed as far along in the story as I would have normally by now.
The story itself seems relatively interesting, since it revolves around time travel and alternate timelines (I’m actually quite fond of this premise, because it harkens back to Chrono Trigger, a Super Nintendo RPG that Square released back in 1995 which was amazing). The setup is that Serah is living in the aftermath of the ending of Final Fantasy XIII, and her sister mysteriously disappeared several years earlier, although Serah remembers things differently with she and Lightning having a happy reunion (I think this setup is fantastic because I remember the ending of FFXIII the way that Serah does, and Lightning’s absence is really jarring). Noel, a guy from seven hundred years in the future, randomly appears and explains that he’s been sent to take Serah to find Lightning, who’s doing some crazy awesome stuff in a place called Valhalla, and the two embark on a journey through a bunch of time gates to various points in the planet’s history in search of the one gate that will take them back to Valhalla to see Lightning.
I am excited by the prospect of this story.
From an exploration standpoint, this concept allows the game to still have sections broken up into deliberate chunks with distinct areas, but the ones that I’ve seen so far (all two of them) seem to be designed to allow for much more in-depth exploration of an area rather than running down a single path. Huzzah!
It’s definitely way too early to say anything definitive about how I’ll feel about this game when it’s over, but I’m hoping that it will be an experience similar to Final Fantasy XIII but without all the parts that I didn’t care for. So far, that seems to be the case.