I wouldn’t claim to be the number-one fan of any game series, and I tend not to get excited about game releases any more. That said, a couple of days before the release of a major Final Fantasy game, my sanity starts to erode as I get worked up into a frenzy of excitement. The wait for Final Fantasy XIII-2 was particularly unbearable. Not only had I ordered the most expensive version of the game (the £80 Crystal Edition), the dispatch of my copy ended up being affected by retailer GAME’s financial woes. GAME received their stock late and then decided to dispatch their Soulcalibur V pre-orders before starting to send out Final Fantasy XIII-2. By the time I received the dispatch email, I was panicking. I’d read a few anecdotal accounts from people on Twitter and web forums who had had their Crystal Edition orders cancelled with no explanation – would my precious copy, pre-ordered months, months, in advance, be OK?
The dispatch of my copy was not the end of my ordeal. GAME’s Twitter account was uncertain whether pre-orders would arrive in time for release day. An unimaginable horror – having to wait until the day after release to play the latest Final Fantasy title – loomed. The fateful Friday of release arrived. I waited for the delivery van in my living room, on tenterhooks. Would my copy arrive? Or – gulp! – would I have to wait until tomorrow? The minutes and hours became more and more prolonged as my sanity ebbed. Was that… was that my reflection in the mirror, or the delivery man? People passed by the front window, wondering why I was staring out at them. They would never know the true reason – that I was staring at them because I wished they were Parcel Force vans. The morning was passing, lunch approached. Was that sound my rumbling stomach… or the doorbell?
Finally, finally, there was a knock at the door. The delivery man! I struggled to suppress a wild grin – I wouldn’t want the him to think I was mad, would I? I unleashed my Crystal Edition from its cardboard tomb. I gazed upon its contents, its artbook, its lenticular artwork, its soundtrack, its artcards. And then, at last, I reached out the game box. Now, after this long wait, I could begin the experience I had waited all this time to undergo. I read the manual.
So then, Final Fantasy XIII-2. It’s one of the few direct sequels to a mainline Final Fantasy game – and, perhaps unfortunately for anyone who hated the controversial original, it’s perhaps the only follow-up to a Final Fantasy game that feels like an actual sequel. Other follow-ups, such as Final Fantasy X-2 and Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings, have featured wild shifts in core gameplay from the original, inconsistent character design and completely different soundtrack staff. In contrast, Final Fantasy XIII-2 feels more like a refinement, an expansion. Although character clothing designs are done by different designers and two new composers have been added to the soundtrack team, everything feels just about consistent with the world of Final Fantasy XIII. The extra world-building feels like it’s unearthing a world the original game failed to adequately explore, rather than awkwardly bolting on extra narrative elements.
If you hated Final Fantasy XIII then you will find little appeal in Serah and Noel’s time-travelling quest to find Lighting and save the future. But if you merely disliked certain elements of the original game, you may find they’ve been amended in Final Fantasy XIII-2. The environments are less linear, and there are now groupings of NPCs – and while you couldn’t call these ‘towns’ in name, they serve the same purpose while providing a more streamlined experience than the towns and cities of the JRPGs of old. The time travel mechanic allows you to return to previous areas and optional areas at will, so you can take a break to do some extra-curricular exploring or side-questing at any time. The characters are a pleasant surprise: new lead Serah is neither excessively vulnerable or overwhelmingly girl-powerish, while newcomer Noel is likeable and has an interesting backstory.
The battle system hasn’t changed much. There are now only two main characters – the third slot in your party is filled by one of a selection of monsters, caught and developed in a somewhat Pokémon-esque style. You can add a variety of adornments to your monsters, or to put it another way, you can dress your monsters up in cute little hats, weee! The addition of monsters actually adds a fair bit of depth to the battle system as their battle skills can be extensively customised. They’ve also fixed some of the little things. There’s no longer a delay the first time you Paradigm Shift (change roles) in a battle – this didn’t even bother me in the original, but the removal of the delay improves the flow of battle so much. You can also change your party leader, both manually and automatically when the leader dies, which is as dramatic an improvement as you might expect (nobody wants to Game Over when there are healthy characters standing about with a wealth of revival spells and items).
One addition I don’t like is ‘wound damage’. Wound damage lowers your maximum HP level for the remainder of the battle and it can be quite annoying when you end up with a HP gauge that’s a small fraction of its normal size. This only happened to me a few times during the course of the game, and tended to happen when I’d taken too long to kill an enemy. But you can end up in situations where it’s better to let a character die and then revive them with a Phoenix Down than struggle on, which just feels absurd (I only got through the final battle because each character died in turn, allowing me to get rid of the ridiculous levels of wound damage that had built up). It’s an interesting mechanic but one I never want to see again.
Graphically, the game is a little bit disappointing. I wasn’t expecting the visual opulence of the original, as this sequel was developed on a smaller budget, but there’s only one area that matches the heights of the previous game (although it comes in both night-time and daytime flavours). The returning areas have been redesigned with more muted colour schemes which feel like they’ve been implemented in a misguided attempt to appeal to Western gamers. Archylte Steppe is made up of muddier darker greens, even when you set the weather-controlling machine to produce copious amounts of dazzling sunshine. Other areas show a mysterious preponderance of oranges and browns. I can cope with the less-specular level designs – but I miss the bright JRPG colours of the previous game.
The plot, as you might expect from that of a Final Fantasy game about time travel, is an incoherent load of old balls. But it serves its purpose as a motivator and the characters carry it through. It’s as clear as mud but won’t leave your emotions entirely untouched. The primary antagonist, Caius, is one of the best villains the series has seen a while, with an epic theme tune to match. That leitmotif is one of many standout entries in the game’s soundtrack, an eclectic selection of tunes that won’t please everyone but certainly pleased me with its periodic outbursts of batshit mentalism nestled between the more traditional background and character themes.
I’m going to broach the subject of the ending now, and while I’m not going to discuss plot details (in fact some gaming websites have referred to what I’m going to talk about in headlines), you may want to stop reading if you’re particularly spoiler-shy. Are you particularly spoiler-shy? Stop reading… now. Final Fantasy XIII-2 ends with the words ‘To be continued…’ and this has caused a bit of controversy. Some people think the ending is DLC-bait, others think the game works as a standalone narrative. My two cents is this: I quite like the ending as a piece of storytelling but it is clearly not the end of the story and in this instance I feel uncomfortable with the cliffhanger. If you have a game like Mass Effect 2, which was clearly stated to be the second part of a trilogy of games, then there is no need to provide a self-contained story. In the case of Final Fantasy XIII-2 it is not clear how the story will be resolved, although it seems more likely this will be done through DLC than another sequel. I don’t want the story to be resolved through downloadable content – I bought the game for PS3 precisely because I wanted the highest quality assets and lossless FMV; experiencing the true end of the story through assets that have been compressed to save on bandwidth and storage is precisely what I don’t want. But this is speculation to an extent – we’ll have to wait to see whether the Final Fantasy XIII story ends with DLC or an unprecedented second sequel.
Overall, I really like Final Fantasy XIII-2. It’s a fun, playable RPG and out of all the Final Fantasy games that have been released in the last decade, this one is probably my favourite. It isn’t as pretty as the original, and its story is lacking in clarity but it’s enjoyable, well-structured (with no missables!) and restores some of the sense of ambition and scale that I feel some of the series’ recent instalments have been lacking. And you can put cute little hats on monsters! That, surely, is worth £80 and an agonising wait on its own.