Sunday, February 12, 2012

Xbox 360/PS3 review: Final Fantasy XIII-2

Final Fantasy XIII-2 is not as original as the first entry in the Fabula Nova Crystallis series, but still seeks to explore possibilities by integrating JRPG elements both new and old. The game opens with Lightning trapped in a realm known as Valhalla, a place where time does not flow naturally. Her attempts to hold powerful rival Caius at bay prove challenging, though she seems to be holding her ground well enough. From an opening in the sky falls Noel Kreiss, a human from the end of days. His wishes for a miracle brought him to Valhalla, and, knowing the threat Caius poses to the goddess Etro, Lightning sends Noel through time to find her sister Serah. After a brief exchange, Serah explains to Noel that she seems to be the only one who remembers that Lightning survived the fall of Cocoon at the end of Final Fantasy XIII, and Noel confirms her memories, informing her of Lightning's whereabouts. The two then set out to correct a myriad of paradoxes in hopes of restoring the 'true timeline'.

The gameplay is largely retained from FFXIII, with the battle system controlling in an almost identical manner. There are, however, a few small changes that go a long way. Serah and Noel are the only two human party members players will have control of throughout the entirety of the game. While both are granted three roles to begin with, leveling these up with crystogen points with present the opportunity to unlock all six roles, as well as bonus boosts and increases to both the ATB gauge and the equipment they are able to carry. Monsters can now be tamed and leveled up via special materials that can either be earned after battles or purchased with Gil. Each monster is allotted a single role (a Zwerg Scandroid is a Ravager, a Cait Sith is a Medic, etc.), but players can have three on call at any given time to work into their Paradigms.

XIII-2 jumps into the action pretty quickly, giving quick refreshers for veterans/tutorials for newcomers. For the most part, XIII-2 feels like a title made for those who played XIII, but it is not so quick to entirely alienate anyone who missed out on the adventures of Lightning, Snow and company the first time around. The crystarium has been streamlined, as each new improvement means a level increase for the respective character/monster. The improvements now also list the number of crystogen points required to level up.

The fact that only the Commando, Ravager, and Sentinel roles are available early on can prove a tad frustrating, especially when coupled with the fact that certain monsters are area-specific. But a few hours in, that aspect smoothes out. Some battles are followed up with a Cinematic Action, wherein players will interact with certain command prompts. These behave similarly to the interactive cutscenes in the more recent Resident Evil games, though they do not have significant negative repercussions should players miss the prompts.

The game is still one of the prettiest releases on current-gen consoles, which is no surprise, considering it is a Square Enix property. The environments designs see as much variety in aesthetics as they do in different layouts. From the overgrown forest of the Sunleth Waterscape, to the wide open fields of the Archylte Steppe, to the futuristic technological cityscape of Academia, every level presents players with new visual treats. The soundtrack is the most varied and experimental of any Final Fantasy to date, presenting traditional orchestrated tracks alongside techno tunes and borderline-death metal. Despite this great break away from the familiar, it all fits pretty well, save for a few tracks whose vocals throw off the vibe of their respective levels.

The minigames, a longtime staple of the more traditional Final Fantasy games, have returned following their absence from FFXIII. The quiz game is entertaining enough, and will test players knowledge of both XIII and XIII-2. But the bulk of the minigames are found in Serendipity, a casino-themed level entirely devoted to distractions and earning coins to spend on prizes. The lack of engaging minigames among the very few that are presented will easily turn players away from its colorful setting. The sidequests riddled throughout the multitude of levels, however, prove much more varied and enjoyable. The fragment rewards and crystogen point bonuses also act as sufficient incentive for players to seek out one after another.

A few puzzle elements have been worked in, though nothing quite so cleverly devised as anything a Legend of Zelda title or even the Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles spinoffs could muter up. Instead, FFXIII-2 offers three styles of puzzles, dubbed 'temporal rifts'. The easiest require players to connect matching jewels in a constellation shape before the clock runs out. The second challenge players to determine the correct path to take while collecting crystals, but at the same time do not allow them to retrace their steps. The trial-and-error aspect of these make their design seem rather trivial, but at the same time helps the RPG from derailing from its core gameplay.

The third type of temporal rift comes in the form of a clock. These require players to figure out the number of spaces the hands must rotate in order to clear all of the numbers. If the hands of the clock land on an empty space, the puzzle resets. It sounds a lot more simplistic than it really is, especially when you take into account the increase in numbers as each stage of the puzzle progresses. These are all randomly generated, and players may find themselves turned off by their inclusion - not just because they require careful plotting, but because of how lethargic they feel in comparison to the rest of the game.

Prior to Final Fantasy XIII-2's release, Square Enix touted that main villain Caius Ballad would be among the most challenging bosses in the series history. While this is true, his fight can prove rather easy if players grind for experience points. Compared to many previous Final Fantasy titles, grinding in XIII-2 is incredibly easy - in fact, most players will likely find themselves at higher levels than necessary without really trying to seek out extra battles. Taking a few wrong turns in Academia 400AF or encountering wild creatures in the Archylte Steppe can easily merit significant boosts to their crystogen count.

The game's ending is in keeping with the much darker tone the sequel carries over FFXIII. It's also an insulting conclusion to the solid storytelling that builds up the entire experience. This, combined with the DLC that is already being released, leads to some heavy implication that they basically released an incomplete game. So many of the game's weak points are exposed late, which may leave a distinctly sour taste with players who otherwise enjoyed this sequel.

When all is said and done, many players may find Noel Kreiss among their favorite Final Fantasy characters. His story in genuinely compelling as part adventure through time, part tragedy in being one of the last humans left at the end of time. Serah is not nearly as memorable, though her inclusion is certainly a step up from her role as a convenient plot device in FFXIII. Mog serves as a cute, often goofy sidekick, while Lightning takes a backseat for nearly the entire game. There are many familiar faces, and their stories all play out in a fitting, if not somewhat predictable way. Hope is easily the most interesting of the NPCs, though resident villain Caius and seeress Yeul present compelling enough expansions to the Fabula Nova Crystallis realm.

My rating: 8.25 (out of 10)

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