It’s been a while since my last diary entry. Since then, I beat the game and ended up surprised by how much I enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII-2. It fixes a lot of issues from the previous game, yet brings a whole host of new issues with it, notably a nonsensical plot. To even talk about it, it’s just… pointless. The writers didn’t entertain it with much care, so I’m not going to bother either… too much.
It should go without saying this late after the game’s release, but…
Very minor spoilers ahead!
Okay then. Ahem.
…What a botch job of an ending! On one hand, I liked the dark twist it took. To a point. I haven’t seen a turn like that in the series since the World of Ruin in Final Fantasy VI. Unlike FFVI, however, this game doesn’t continue beyond its apocalyptic turn. In XIII-2, that’s it. That’s the end. See you in Final Fantasy XIII-3! Or not? Maybe? Word of God says there won’t be one, but how long will that be true?
On the other hand, I struggled to care about the characters and their plight, so the gloomy end didn’t exactly hit me as intended. Caius is such a boring, one-note villain who, despite the numerous reminders of his motivation, failed to garner any sympathy. So he’s trying to resurrect his dead loved one. Or kill a goddess. Either one, it’s as pedestrian as it gets. It’s good they went for a simpler goal for the villain this time around — anyone ever figure out what Barthandelus’ deal was in the first XIII? — but I was rarely moved.
I mean, in a certain light, I liked some of it. It’s nonsense, and it’s not the worst kind of nonsense either. The gameplay’s good enough to brush the story and its silly melodrama aside. But hey, Noel was a pleasant surprise! By far the best-acted of the bunch, and as the last human alive in a future wasteland, the most interesting as well. He’s optimistic and energetic, which is a great juxtaposition, and we get a nice payoff when we finally got to see “the last days” of humanity and the toll it took on his psyche. He’s a solid protagonist, one that sticks out from the rest of the dummies in the cast. He even gives Snow some well-deserved criticism, and appears to be the only surviving hero in the end. It’s a shame he isn’t in a better-executed story.
And that’s my problem with the FFXIII games as a whole. There’s a lot of grand ideas here, it’s just too bad the execution falls flat more than half the time. Under the care of a more focused writer and/or director this could’ve been one of the greats. As it is now, I’m tired of it. These guys just don’t have what it takes to deliver a story I care about. The dialogue, the plotting, the world — it’s all so haphazard. The same dumb pablum since Advent Children, Crisis Core, The 3rd Birthday, the whole sorry Kingdom Hearts series, the first Final Fantasy XIII… it’s become a pattern, one that appears to be here to stay. The guys that could deliver decent narratives have fled Square for the most part, or are relegated to the handheld scene.
Yeah, I’m about ready to move on to the next real Final Fantasy universe, free of Lightning, Snow and Serah. We’ve spent as much time as we need with this cast and this world. More than enough when you realize the world of Cocoon and Pulse is the only (single-player) Final Fantasy world we’ve known this generation. Generations prior, we’ve enjoyed at least three separate adventures in three separate realms per console cycle. This time, it looks like we’re stuck with the l’Cie and the Farseers and whatnot for a while yet.
As FFXIII-2‘s cliffhanger of an ending indicates, we got at least one more installment on the way. I don’t see how they can resolve everything the ending set forth with mere DLC. Plus, I detest the idea of that. I shouldn’t have to buy the true ending of a game. Optional expansion pack type stuff like they’ve been doing — Coliseum monster battles, costumes, side stories — that’s fine. I don’t agree with the prices, but that’s fine. Selling the final piece of the story as DLC, though, sells such a clear message that these guys don’t care about plot or game design or anything — they only care about following trends and popular business models. FFXIII-2 is one of the most reactionary games I’ve seen — fix this, fix that, we have to be like this, we have to do that — and the whole DLC thing is just another mark on the checklist.
The Halo games, Gears of War, Mass Effect and the Call of Duty series all feature cliffhanger endings, so Final Fantasy should, too! Some of those game have QTEs, so FFXIII-2 should, too! Game X has branching paths and dialogue options, so should Final Fantasy! Check, check, check, check… It doesn’t feel like the game was led by a strong vision. It feels like game development by committee, by a studio struggling to figure out what us fickle fans want. I don’t envy the guys at Square, nor are they alone. Resident Evil, Castlevania, Sonic the Hedgehog, Metal Gear Solid… every long-lasting game series of the past 20+ years is currently enduring growing pains. Some are outright kaput.
Hm. When you consider other properties’ problems, Final Fantasy isn’t doing so bad at all.
As far as gameplay mechanics go, Final Fantasy XIII-2 does pretty well. The fast-paced battle system from Final Fantasy XIII has been further refined, as I detailed in my previous diary entries. Battles go by so fast, the game should probably classify as an action-RPG. Paradigm shifts no longer randomly show animations of every party member shifting one after another, which is a welcome welcome welcome change that speeds up the pace of battles considerably. Additionally, when you reveal an enemy’s weakness, the Auto-Battle option picks out the basic attacks like Thunder, Fire, Attack, Ruin, etc. rather than the strongest attacks available. If you want to use the more powerful attacks, you have to go to the Abilities tab and select the attacks you want to use, which I think is an improvement over XIII’s way of doing things.
The Pokemon-like monster collection skirts by without the organization and finesse of that particular Nintendo series, but it is another nice thing to pay attention to while playing. I found myself asking What monster would be my best Ravager right now? My best Sentinel?, etc. I put my teams together based on their practical attributes in battle — highest magic, strength and so on — but also on the perceived personality of that monster. I will admit I spent some good time scrolling through the trinkets, hats and badges you can slap on a monster to personalize it. A robot with a four-leaf clover sticking out of it? How Ghibli. It’s inevitable you’d get attached to a certain beast! You have to sacrifice a considerable amount of rare material to raise their stats, so choosing which beast to rear at a time is an important decision. Based on the popularity of certain Final Fantasy monsters like Cactaurs, Chocobos and Behemoths, I can see this formula reappearing in future installments without protest.
The worst thing about the battles is how easy they are. I wonder why there are difficulty modes in this game at all — Easy and Normal. I chose Normal, yet it feels… very easy. With maybe a few exceptions sprinkled throughout, including the final battle, no one would never have a problem with a fight. You have to go off the campaign path into side quest and optional boss territory for a real challenge. Which isn’t too difficult — there is a LOT of content, not even counting the optional DLC bosses. Though I beat the main story there’s still a lot to do: max out my characters, capture and raise some more monsters, fight some challenging boss battles and see what else there is to discover. And I hardly patronized Serendipity, the casino world where you can race Chocobos, probably because it wasn’t necessary, too. It would have been wise to make Chocobo racing a one-time mandatory thing the way it was for Cloud in Final Fantasy VII. Still, it’s good it’s there. This game has a lot more going on in it than the first XIII.
At 30+ hours of play time in the main story, FFXIII-2 moves along at a fast clip, with the exception of two latter-half areas that drag the game’s pace down to a crawl. Anyone who’s played it by now probably know what they are: The drowsy Augusta Tower, and the rainy Academa City with all the C’ieth attacking. The Augusta Tower is a good example of what Final Fantasy needs less of: boring, repetitive dungeons with dull “puzzles.” An obvious bunch of padding, this “tower” is just a series of identical box-shaped rooms and passageways included to make the game last a tad longer. The puzzles — just a bunch of switch-flipping — could hardly be considered as such.
The “Temporal Rift” puzzles in the game, which appear randomly as extra challenges, could stand to go away, too. There’s nothing very fun about any of them and only get in the way of progress. Want to access a new area? First, solve this dumb time-based teaser! No, game. No thanks. They’re the most obvious of the shoe-horned “improvements.” Thankfully, there are only a few mandatory ones and the optional ones can be abandoned. I didn’t have the patience for them.
I had less patience for the Academia City scenario where monstrous C’ieth bombarded me at every possible second. There’s no Escape or Avoid Battle option in Final Fantasy XIII-2, I had to fight every single one of these boring bastards to continue with the game. A good chunk of my playtime was spent dispatching these easy-to-stomp things, thoughtlessly, like a hamster on its wheel. The fights went on and on and on, without any challenge or reason. They just kept coming. I began to question why I was playing it. Or any video game, at all. But I kept going so I could get the area over with, and hopefully that area was just a hump to get over. It was, thank god, and the rest of the game never got as laborious. Still, why was that section of the game allowed to exist in that mind-numbing state?
When everything comes together in the battles — switching to a defensive Paradigm to heal, switching to one to grant buffs, to one to provide better defense, to whittle down the enemy’s Stagger bar, to issue an all-out attack, to initiate a monster’s QTE attack to really deal damage, to heal with a potion, etc – Final Fantasy XIII-2‘s a joy. When it becomes an effortless slog in a few parts, or the story takes a nosedive, it’s… well, not that bad. It’s an interesting game. The plot’s bunk, but that’s to be expected at this point. You’re not going to fault a dog for barking, right?
So, yeah! I’d recommend it. There’s a lot of content to keep busy, and the fighting’s fun. And the music! I had my reservations about it at first, but the soundtrack’s really good. If Square’s been consistent about one thing, it’s their excellent soundtracks. This one’s highly eclectic, poppy and vocal — in the same vein as the Persona games or Square’s own The World Ends With You. I still have some of its music stuck in my head time to time…
And that’s that. The final word on Final Fantasy XIII-2. Sort of. DLC’s still coming out for it, though there’s no indication any of it will finish the story. If they make an announcement at all, it could be at E3 in a few weeks. Otherwise, we’ll have to make do with Assassin’s Creed uniforms and moogle mustaches. Y’know. If you’re into that sort of thing.