So Many Feathers: A Review of Final Fantasy XIII-2
The Final Fantasy franchise has a long and storied history in gaming, putting its creator Square Enix at the top of the food chain for all things JRPG for as long as this gamer can remember. There is a style and grace to them that has gone unmatched by most other games. As a long time Final Fantasy fan, it was with a mixture of excitement and nostalgia that I began to play the latest offering: Final Fantasy XIII-2.
It should be noted that I haven’t played a Final Fantasy game in some time; I actually didn’t play the first Final Fantasy XIII at all, instead opting to watch some of my friends go through it. I am aware of some of the issues that many players had with Final Fantasy XIII the first go around, but I was determined to go in with no judgements or expectations and just let the game happen. What I found was a nice, polished experience.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is not perfect. It still took about 10+ hours before I felt like I was actually playing the game, the combat interface can be intimidating for new players and the story involves a boat-load of lore and background information that can be overwhelming at times. But the game is sleek, pretty, and as usual has some characters I was interested in getting to know better. I personally fell in love with most of them the moment I learned they liked cats.
At the start of the game there are couple things that struck me. The first is that Final Fantasy XIII-2 is absolutely, stunningly gorgeous. I have yet to see a Final Fantasy game that hasn’t blown me away with its artistic beauty and this one is no different. The artists have continually designed worlds that are very unique, even within the Final Fantasy series, and they are always successful in creating settings of awe-inspiring and magical weight with almost heavenly imagery, luminous with a life of its own.
The second thing I noticed was that the character design is typically Final Fantasian (that’s a descriptive term now). The majority of the female characters have childlike faces, particularly the protagonist Serah, whom I was convinced was actually 13 years old. The momentary eyebrow I raised in learning she was engaged to be married passed quickly once I remembered that all Final Fantasy characters look like children, even the adults. Nonetheless the characters that populate the world are beautifully rendered and, as usual, everyone has a particularly wacky (read: awesome) sense of style. I’m also fairly sure no one on this planet can argue against Final Fantasy having some of the best hair in games.
For the gamer who hasn’t played Final Fantasy XIII, have no fear. Everyone is just as confused as you are, including the characters in the game (especially Serah who mostly wanders around wide-eyed asking questions and generally being confused).
Serah’s confusion presents a nice opportunity for exposition at the beginning, and thankfully the game doesn’t immediately overwhelm the player with every single bit of information at once (something about which I was admittedly nervous going into the game). Enough information is given to be able to start playing and any questions the player still have will presumably be answered as the rest of the story unfolds. Presumably.
Don’t misunderstand: the amount of information contained within the game is staggering and its very possible for the player to feel completely overwhelmed if they allow themselves. Datalogs, beastiaries, crystariums, people throwing names of places and people out willy nilly, complex tactical menus and a plethora of cinematic-based action to feast your eyes upon are all here. If they are a new to the FF universe, the player may want to take in the game in small bites just so he or she doesn’t get burned out. About five hours into my own experience I had a near mental breakdown trying to read and comprehend every codex entry, remember who everyone was, and determine stuff like whether or not an Uridimmu is resistant to fire (I still don’t know). Finally I got to a magical place – a magical place where I decided to just let the game wash over me and bathe me in it’s warm glow.
Because I had found a sort of zen head space when it came to the story and allowed it to unfold before me, I was able to thoroughly enjoy it. Every phase of the story left me with the kind of questions I really wanted to see answered and the suspicion that if I just played on a little further, I would find those answers. Traveling through the time gates in the game amounts to an enjoyable change of scenery in the aforementioned gorgeous world. The player won’t feel bogged down with a million quest objectives to accomplish in one place before moving onto the next.
FFXIII-2 tries really hard to keep the player in the loop. “The story so far” is a nice reminder when you load your game of where you are in the story. It’s a recap of what has happened in your game, which was very helpful to me to see just before I traveled through the nausea-inducing graphics of the Historia Crux loading screens.
Everything serves to help the player become more immersed in the environment. The fun of exploring the world is enriched when you can chat with other npcs and pass by bits of conversations happening. Conversations will often result in what is called a “live trigger event,” where the player is presented with several different conversation options to choose from. There is usually a “best” choice that may give the player a reward for choosing it, but other than that I felt like these trigger conversation options were a little out of place; it presented an illusion of altering the storyline, with little actual effect no matter what you choose.
There are several… fun… characters of note such as Chocolina, a breast-heavy crazy woman who wears a bird costume and shows up in the most random of places to sell specialty goods. There’s also Mog, the tiny, magical Moogle who has a limited vocabulary mostly consisting of the word “Kupo!” Mog can turn into weapons, and project a magical energy to help find hidden things and he takes great offense at being called a “toy.” Caius is a compelling “villain” though I use the term loosely as he is surprisingly sympathetic. Noel and Serah didn’t take long to win me over as interesting people though I can’t help but think the dynamic is mostly Serah asking stupid questions and Noel very patiently answering the best he can. Regardless of this, the two seem to have a fun chemistry as they bop around the place to the fun and whimsical music the game provides at each level.
If you’ve ever played a Final Fantasy game you’ll notice that the combat system is pretty familiar. It involves the mashing of the confirm selection button, occasionally taking potions and if you really mess up, bestowing a phoenix down on one of your party members to get them back in the fight. You can do this in Final Fantasy XIII-2 at the lower levels while you get used to it all again, but eventually having some decent party dynamics and tactics will become advantageous. Another thing that becomes important is the use of paradigm shifts in the game. Paradigm shifts change the party’s fight tactics to whatever is appropriate for the enemy they’re facing. The paradigm shifts can be used in real time to provide extra defense against a particularly heavy enemy attack, for example, or to add a medic (in the form of an adorable Cait Sith) to the group dynamic.
As usual, when it comes to the Final Fantasy games, getting the hang of actually being able to use all these different options to your advantage comes with time. It was several hours before I said to myself, “now I get it, now I’m playing.” Eventually they player becomes a well oiled-machine, perfectly aware of what to use, when and how to do it and the controls become almost second nature. That has always been one of the brilliant things about these games I think. The skill tree is fun and deceptively simple to level up, allowing different party members to assume different roles as you see fit. Example: Noel seems like a strapping young lad so I put quite a bit of his points in the Commando category while Serah’s focused mainly on the Ravager (magic) aspect.
If the graphically intense fight scenes aren’t enough of a feast for your eyes and brain there are also extras that come into play. The monsters that help make up your party each have a unique, oftentimes amusing special attack that requires active participation from the player. Additionally the cinematic action offers opportunities not only get the heart pumping, but allows the player to feel in real control of how the fight is playing out. It doesn’t hurt that the results of successfully pulling off the cinematic triggers are an intensely colorful, vision stimulating sequence. If you get tired of fighting (you won’t) there are intermittent puzzles to solve called Anomalies. Solving them helps you unravel the strange paradoxes that populate the world (and they’re fun to boot).
Is Final Fantasy XIII-2 the best Final Fantasy RPG to ever be? Maybe not, but it’s fun and beautiful and easily enjoyed with some real substance to the characters, world, and story. If you enjoy the stylized sleekness of a polished, heart-felt adventure then Final Fantasy XIII-2 will be something you’ll really appreciate, and when you’re finished you’ll likely have a smile on your face. It’s an experience definitely worth picking up.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 gets a Save Game score of 8.5 out of 10