About a month ago I wrote up a post with my initial thoughts on Final Fantasy XIII-2 after the first few hours of gameplay. I just finished it to my satisfaction, so now I’m back to offer some thoughts after I’ve acquired a fuller picture of what the game experience is like.
I suppose I should begin with the plot, because this is an RPG we’re talking about, and if the plot’s no good, then that’s a big blow against the quality of the game.
As I said before, our protagonists are Serah Farron and Noel Kreiss, two people from opposite ends of the timeline within the game; Serah lives in the aftermath of the fall of Cocoon that concluded Final Fantasy XIII, and Noel is from seven hundred years later when humanity’s gone extinct. Their quest involves seeking out Serah’s sister, Lightning (the protagonist of Final Fantasy XIII), who was erased from the timeline suddenly following Cocoon’s fall. Lightning, it turns out, was abducted by Chaos (an amorphous force of entropy that lurks underneath the ordered universe that’s held in check by the Goddess of Death Etro; it’s all very Miltonian) and shunted to a place called Valhalla where time is meaningless and death doesn’t happen. Lightning gets conscripted by Etro into becoming her champion and fighting against Caius Ballad, an immortal man who’s intent on slaying Etro and unleashing Chaos so that the timeline will be eradicated. Caius’s motivations for his actions revolve around his desire to free the eternally reincarnating seeress Yeul (a young girl who’s destined to die every time she’s forced by Etro to see a prophecy regarding changes to the timeline). As Serah and Noel go zipping along the timeline making changes to try to restore Lightning, they constantly butt heads with Caius, who’s justifiably angry as every change they make ends up killing another reincarnation of Yeul.
So basically, we have a story wrapped around some very personal motivations that have immense consequences for a whole lot of people (like, everyone who’s ever existed within the Fabula Nova Crystallis universe). Actually, after reading up on the background mythology of this particular world, the point of the story starts to make a lot more sense.
Anyhow, this is a time travel story, and so we have to talk about all the causality that’s explored here. The short answer is: what causality? Seriously, from a logical standpoint, a lot of what’s used to explain why Serah and Noel’s actions cause such massive changes in the timeline are total nonsense. I’ve tried to figure out a logical way to explain the story’s central conceit that changes caused at one point in the timeline create changes not only from that point forward, but also from that point backward (at least once in the course of the game, something that our heroes do creates an alternate past relative to the point where they make the change). What’s funny is I could totally go along with that if there were more explanation along the lines of time as a linear concept being largely constructed by beings who exist within time and have to experience it linearly (for Lightning and Caius, who exist primarily outside of time in Valhalla, it makes perfect sense that their personal timelines are all wibbly-wobbly with them being aware of things that will happen in the future because everything’s kind of happening simultaneously from their perspective; that would explain why they’re the main ones saying that changing the present changes the past, but for Serah, Noel, and the player, that’s a load of nonsense that’s just very ill-explained within the game–I shouldn’t have to do this kind of mental gymnastics to understand the phlebotinum of a game targeted at Japanese teenagers).
Of course, I’m complaining about the parts of the game that are nonsense, even though I know full well that Final Fantasy is a piece of pop entertainment, and while the writers may have certain ideas they’re exploring, the meaning of any given story is largely surface, and therefore is best appreciated without too much deep thought (it’s only my own English major background that drives me to put this much thought into brain bubblegum). So let’s back up and evaluate based on the effectiveness of the emotional impact of the story.
Serah wants to find her sister. I generally like the characters from Final Fantasy XIII, so I’m emotionally invested in seeing that come to fruition (Lightning was, after all, conceived as a female version of Cloud, and because I liked Cloud, I like Lightning too, although she’s much less of a poser and a little bit more broody than Cloud’s original conception). Noel’s an unknown quantity at the start of the game, but as I’ve played through and seen his history, I feel bad for the position he finds himself in, and I want him to succeed in finding his own personal redemption (living to be the last human creates some serious baggage). Caius is a fairly complex villain whose end-of-the-world motivation is grounded in his very positive inclination towards protecting Yeul. I genuinely feel bad for him spending thousands of years watching his ward (and friend) repeatedly die and be reborn to die again. I can’t comment on his choice of hairstyle or his Mick Jagger scarf, but absurd character designs are a standard part of the series, so whatever. Yeul, unfortunately, comes off as a football with pretty much no agency whatsoever. She’s a tragic cursed girl who (literally) exists only to die and give exposition on what’s happening (also to give the two central male characters their motivations). It’s not that I’m surprised at this poor characterization, but where I think the other two primary female characters of this story, Lightning and Serah, seem pretty well fleshed out with their own agency (as much as anyone can have in a plot that revolves around the immortal villain manipulating everything to happen the way he wants it), it’s a shame that Yeul doesn’t get that same treatment.
Briefly, in terms of the ending, I like that the game ends with Caius winning (I had heard from critics that the game was good, but it had a cliffhanger ending that seemed to come out of nowhere). Like the heroes, I don’t fully understand what Caius was doing, but the reveal that he manipulated everything to destroy time works for me. I mean, it’s not like I saw it coming, so I can’t fault Serah and Noel as idiots who should have known they were doing exactly what Caius wanted. I know that’s cold comfort since the ending does have the sense that after everything turning out okay, two extra minutes where it all falls apart were tacked on to set up for the sequel. Of course, an ending where time’s been destroyed doesn’t really carry the same sense of dread because what it means is that consequences have essentially stopped, and now it’s just a matter of waiting until our heroes find a way to set things right (coincidentally, I’m looking forward to the North American release of Lightning Returns, because I’m hearing good things about its Japanese release and Final Fantasy XIII‘s series seems to be getting better with each iteration).
Moving away from story and getting into my thoughts on gameplay, I feel like this game did a lot to improve on the mechanics of Final Fantasy XIII, and it was easier. Some people might be put off by a sequel being easier than it’s predecessor, but for me, as someone who values not having to sink a lot of time into repetitive tasks in order to fully enjoy a game, I thought that was a plus. I never finished all the side quests in FFXIII, mostly because I just didn’t want to invest the hours grinding my characters so they were strong enough to make the fights not absurd, and I suspected that something similar might happen with XIII-2, but that never happened. I actually over leveled my characters by accident about halfway through the main story, and the difficulty never caught up with me after that (this may be a weakness in the game’s design because the side quest areas can be visited at pretty much any time in any order, so the difficulty of the enemies seems rather flat across sections that are associated with one of the game’s six chapters). Despite the reduced difficulty, the boss fights were still varied enough that I enjoyed their challenge without being overwhelmed.
One major complaint I have is related to the design of a couple of the side quests. There’s a “complete the bestiary” side quest that involves killing at least one of every monster in the game, which on its face is nothing unusual for an RPG (it’s a rather standard gameplay extender), but it was infuriating to have a monster that only spawns in one spot at the end of a rather irritating dungeon with only one chance per run through to get it to appear. If I hadn’t had the idea to save just before going to the spot where it appears and just reloading if I didn’t get it, I probably would have given up on finishing that side quest, and inadvertently being locked out of some of the ending content (there’s a secret ending that can only be viewed after completing every side quest in the game). Besides that irritation, there was also a side quest that required winning a certain amount of money from the game’s casino area. I absolutely hate luck-based gameplay, and being required to spend time playing a slot game that was essentially just me holding down a button for a couple hours with a sufficiently large pool of money to put into the machine was the worst. I finally just wrapped a rubber band around my controller and did something else while I waited for the quest to finish.
All that’s to say that I hate design decisions that are designed to induce obsessive behavior in a player without offering them anything in the way of gameplay rewards. It is not fun to do repetitive tasks with a small random chance of success. Game developers, stop doing that crap.
Otherwise, the gameplay was fun. I would play something like this again.