Even before it was released, Final Fantasy XIII was already being both criticized and defended by a divided fanbase. Development for the game began in 2004, only a year after Final Fantasy developer Square was acquired by Enix. The game was revealed at E3 in 2006, where Square Enix also announced that it would be just the first in a series of games built around the same engine. Originally envisioned as a PS2 title, Final Fantasy XIII was bumped to the PS3 and delayed when it became clear that Final Fantasy XII would barely make it to the PS2 before the PS3’s launch date. A further delay came when Square Enix decided to release Final Fantasy XIII on the Xbox 360 in addition to the PS3, and longtime series fans began to complain. Their patience, spoiled by a run from 1997-2002 in which Square had churned out Final Fantasy VII through XI (and the acclaimed Tactics spinoff to boot), was strained. Many people had already gone sour on the franchise after Final Fantasy XII, which saw the series transition from command-based to AI-based combat. When Final Fantasy XIII finally arrived in the West in 2010, several pockets of a frustrated fanbase tore it to pieces, criticizing everything from the story to the characters to game’s utter lack of nonlinear exploration. The one aspect of the game met with nearly universal praise was the battle system – and even that consensus compliment came with the caveat that the first twenty hours of gameplay were an elongated tutorial on how to use it. Most rational people agreed that Final Fantasy XIII wasn’t a straight-up bad game; it was just a disappointment in a variety of ways, particularly given its development timeline and the strong legacy of the Final Fantasy series. To make matters worse for Square Enix, they were on the hook for two sequels to the game after investing so much time and money in the Final Fantasy XIII engine. Development on Final Fantasy XIII-2 began immediately, and the design team was painfully aware of the previous game’s perceived shortcomings.
It’s no coincidence, then, that Final Fantasy XIII-2 feels like a self-aware direct response to all of the complaints levied against Final Fantasy XIII. But in addressing so many flaws, Final Fantasy XIII-2 swings far enough the other way to create a few new ones.
The easiest way to talk about Final Fantasy XIII-2, its strengths, and its weaknesses is probably to talk about how the game compares to Final Fantasy XIII; some very minor plot spoilers for both games will ensue. Following a precedent I set for discussing JRPGs in my review of The World Ends with You, let’s break the discussion down, broadly, into three major components.
Final Fantasy XIII told, all things considered, a relatively straightforward story. The six playable characters in that game were essentially tasked with saving the world by preventing a gigantic floating sphere called Cocoon from crashing down to the earth. During the course of the game, these six individuals butted heads and disagreed as often as they didn’t, in part because they were all partially motivated by privately held grudges, personal desires, and familial ties. All six of them were fairly fleshed out and layered with complex personalities. The main character, Lightning, was convinced that by saving the world, she could save her younger sister, Serah, who had been turned into a crystal by the gods. Serah’s fiancé, Snow, was another of the six playable characters. He too wanted to save Serah, but he often disagreed with Lightning over how best to do so. The antagonists in Final Fantasy XIII weren’t very memorable, to the point where I can barely even remember who the final boss was, beyond some kind of spacetime pope, but the friction and tension within the party of main characters provided enough conflict to make up for the lack of a compelling bad guy. Ultimately, you beat the final boss and save the world – and Serah, too.
At any rate, Final Fantasy XIII-2 takes that neat little story and those interesting character dynamics and just punts it all out the window. The game begins by retconning the ending of Final Fantasy XIII. The world and Serah still get saved, but only because an all-powerful goddess named Etro – who had never even been mentioned in the first game – decides to intervene on the party’s behalf. After doing so, Etro is substantially weakened, and takes Lightning away to be her perpetual guardian, which removes Lightning from Final Fantasy XIII-2 entirely. This time around, Serah becomes the protagonist, and it’s her turn to save Lightning. She’s aided by a young man named Noel, who appears out of nowhere claiming to be the last man alive some 700 years in the future. What unfolds from here is, frankly, batshit insanity. Serah and Noel travel throughout time trying to resolve various paradoxes and delay, once again, the destruction of Cocoon. Most of the original cast of Final Fantasy XIII make a token cameo appearance or two along the way, but none of them join the party for any length of time, instead aiding Serah and Noel indirectly. Puzzlingly, this includes Snow, who appears to still be engaged to Serah – not married yet, but not broken up, either – but who doesn’t insist on traveling through time with her in order to save Lightning. Noel is motivated by the death of a girl from his own time named Yeul, who it turns out is a seeress of sorts for Etro, and can therefore see all of eternity at once. Whenever Serah and Noel change the timeline Back to the Future style, Yeul is overwhelmed and immediately killed – and then created anew. This in turn infuriates her perpetual guardian, Caius, who wants to kill the goddess Etro in order to literally wipe out all of existence, just so that Yeul no longer has to suffer and die. This pits Caius against Lightning, and later, Serah and Noel against Caius, who turns out to be the final boss of the game. It’s all incredibly convoluted and loaded with questionable judgment calls, but at least Final Fantasy XIII-2 ends up with an interesting villain at its endgame. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t even reach a proper conclusion; most of the previously mentioned characters are killed in a Hamlet-style bloodbath, and the end of the world is imminent. The story continues in the conclusion of the FInal Fantasy XIII trilogy, Lightning Returns – the only video game title I know that should come with a spoiler alert.
If we’re keeping score – and why not? – then Final Fantasy XIII wins this category with a bigger cast of memorable characters and a stronger narrative.
Here’s where the sequel shines brightest. Among the many complaints people had about Final Fantasy XIII, the biggest and most consistent criticism was that the game was boringly, painfully linear. And this is absolutely true. Final Fantasy XIII is a fifty-hour game, and the first twenty hours are literally spent traveling down corridors and watching cutscenes. There are plenty of random encounters to break up the monotony with another type of monotony, but there’s virtually nothing optional that you can do until the game opens up after a full day’s worth of hours have been logged. Even the combat, which we’ll get to, becomes far more exciting and customizable once there can be three people in your party at once. For real though, there isn’t a single optional side quest in the game for the first twenty hours.
This is where Final Fantasy XIII-2 almost overcompensates. You spend this game zipping around from time period to time period, never quite sure where you’re going or even if you’re advancing the main story. There are dozens of fully imagined areas to explore and over a hundred optional side quests to consider. It’s almost overwhelming, and as the quests stack up like bounties in Destiny, it’s much easier to start new quests than it is to finish old quests. There are hidden treasures and secrets everywhere in Final Fantasy XIII-2, to the point where using a walkthrough became the only viable option for advancing beyond a certain point in the game. Frustratingly, some of the most well-hidden items are the gate keys that need to be used in order to open up portals to new times and places. There were a handful of locations I never even visited during my playthrough, and not for a lack of wanting to do so. I spent thirty hours on Final Fantasy XIII-2 and probably could have beaten it in twenty-five had I spent less time exploring entirely optional dead end areas. The ultimate goal in the game is to collect all 160 fragments scattered throughout spacetime. Most of these are rewards for completing certain side quests, but plenty more are just hiding in invisible treasure chests in obscure corners of optional areas. Fans bemoan fetch quests and luck-based minigames when they’re part of a game’s main story, but inject such elements into the pursuit of 160 different MacGuffins, and apparently it’s all good.
Honestly, I found the acclaimed wide openness of Final Fantasy XIII-2 to be all breadth and no depth, but it definitely still felt like a bigger and more expansive experience than Final Fantasy XIII despite being half as long; Final Fantasy XIII-2 takes this category in a slam dunk.
Lastly, we come to combat, which is the one area in which the two games are almost exactly the same; fans loved the paradigm-based battle system introduced in Final Fantasy XIII, and Square Enix knew to leave well enough alone on this one. Your party members can once again advance through the skill trees of six different classes and rapidly change between classes during battle. The two key differences this time around are the immediacy with which the combat system opens up and the way the game incorporates a third party member during battles. One big criticism of Final Fantasy XIII was, again, how long it took for the paradigm-based battle system to incorporate three party members. With six job classes available, two party members can provide 36 different class combinations, or paradigms; three party members can provide 216. Final Fantasy XIII-2 doesn’t churn along for twenty hours before deciding that you’re ready to handle three characters instead of two; you’re fighting as a threesome within the first hour or two of gameplay. That said, the party never acquires a third member beyond Serah and Noel. Instead, your perpetually rotating third party slot is occupied by a series of monsters. Whenever you kill a monster in battle, there’s a small chance that the monster becomes available to use as a party member in battle. This small gameplay tweak opens up an entire monster-training component in which you can strike a balance between leaning on the same set of tried and true horses you’ve been using all game or perpetually swapping in the newest and rawest of monsters. Yes, that’s right – it’s basically Pokémon.
The monster-training aspect is interesting, but also more limiting than using a full-fledged third party member. Ultimately, the combat systems in Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XIII-2 are essentially identical, and so the rubber match between the games ends in an anticlimactic draw.
This one comes down to personal preferences. No one should play Final Fantasy XIII-2 without first trying to muscle through Final Fantasy XIII, which will provide a pretty clear picture of the type of game Final Fantasy XIII-2 is. Those who liked the first game would do well to check out its sequel, which takes the same core gameplay elements and sprinkles in a little Chrono Trigger time travel and Pokémon monster training. And anyone who grew too fed up with the monotonous plod of Final Fantasy XIII might find comfort in the quicker-paced and wide-open nature of Final Fantasy XIII-2. Both games were highly enjoyable gaming experiences, but if forced to choose between the two, I guess I prefered Final Fantasy XIII, but I’m a sucker for good characters and a strong story.
Reviews of Final Fantasy XIII and other games in the Final Fantasy franchise can be found at back-blogged.blogspot.com, where in addition to video games the bros occasionally discuss books, movies, and television.