Monday, March 12, 2012

Final Fantasy 13-2 review

Final Fantasy XIII-2
XBOX360, PS3
By Matt Sharp

Let me start by saying that I am a die-hard Final Fantasy fan; I have had a special little spot in my heart for the series since I played the original Final Fantasy for the NES back in ye olden days. I say this because it makes the fact that I absolutely love Final Fantasy XIII-2 even more shocking because this entry is drastically different from any other in the series, except for maybe Final Fantasy X-2 which is also the only other direct sequel in the series.

Final Fantasy XIII received its share of scolding from Final Fantasy fans because of how much it changed from past entries. I personally thought it was fantastic despite its glaring flaws; and I actually thought its “flaws” were in some ways just evolutions in the series that the old stubborn fogies from the Midgar Retirement Community saw as pure evil, just like any other change. XIII-2 basically took everything players didn’t like about XIII and either completely changed it, or at the very least made it bearable.

The game begins three years after the events of XIII, and oh what a beginning it is. I was immediately captivated by the game from the very start; I don’t think I’ve felt that way since playing the original Kingdom Hearts back in ye slightly less olden days. You start the real part of the game as Serah, the younger sister of XIII’s main character, Lightning. I think she is a fantastic choice for a lead protagonist mostly because she was a main axis for the story in XIII even though she was not a playable party member. Soon into the game you meet the other protagonist, Noel. His backstory is pretty easy to explain—he is Trunks from Dragonball Z. For all three of you reading this who don’t know what I’m talking about, he is a time traveler who came back in time to alter a devastated future where humanity is nearly extinct. I personally can’t stand Noel. Personality-wise he is a mix of two Final Fantasy characters I can’t stand, Tidus and Snow; needless to say I pretty much hated him from the start, but of course that’s just my opinion. When Serah and Noel met I was expecting to feel an emotional connection between them like I did with Zidane and Garnet, Squall and Rinoa, or one of the many other romantic pairs in the series; I didn’t. I know that they weren’t going to because she was engaged to Snow, but they could have at least had a more believable friendship. Their journey together never quite felt genuine, it just kind of seemed like your usual meaningless “let’s travel through time and save the world” relationships we all had as kids. The sad thing is that it wasn’t just Noel I felt that way about, I never really cared about any other characters except maybe Serah, Yeul and sometimes Hope. The character I was most disappointed in was Mog, a Moogle who accompanies Serah and transforms into her bow and sword. It sounds absolutely wonderful, but he really just gets annoying to be honest--the main reason being that he talks in full English but has to add “kupo” every couple words; sure it’s super cute in text, but in a game with voice acting…it’s annoying.

Your journey begins and you set off on an adventure through time and space to find Lightning and save a barren future. You use the Historia Crux to choose which area and time period you are traveling to. It’s not like Chrono Trigger in which you can go to a time period and explore the world as it was or will be in that time; each node on the Historia Crux is a specific place in a specific time. The whole system seems great, and don’t get me wrong because I really liked it, but I almost feel like it was made to disguise the fact that you’re really only going to maybe ten locations throughout the entire game. The locales are interesting and breathtakingly gorgeous, but they really don’t vary that much throughout their different time periods or even in their alternate realities, so the game tends to get stale after a while.

The pacing had some major issues. The beginning was amazing, then some interesting things would happen, then nothing would happen, then more awesome things would happen, then more nothing. When the awesome things were happening though, they were really awesome. The game is very episodic, meaning each node you go to on the Historia Crux feels like its own little game similar to travelling to separate levels on a Mario game. This sounds cool, but unfortunately when something is not part of the main story there is usually not that much going on that’s worth remembering. Then came Chapter Four in which Square-Enix needed some pointless filler to make the game longer, and they send you on an obnoxious, multi-part fetch quest. It’s the same thing Metroid Prime did near the end of the game where you are required to go find a certain number of items placed arbitrarily around in places you’ve already been before you can move on in the story. Take note developers: this is poor game design; I’d rather a game be two hours shorter than have this kind of mess to deal with.

There’s really not that much to say about the visuals in this game aside from, “it looks unbelievably gorgeous.” Square-Enix has always had a knack for making some of the best looking games for a system, and I haven’t seen much that compares to XIII and XIII-2. The individualized body language and facial animation really brings life into each character and monster you come across. It’s not only the characters, but the environments themselves are breathtaking; and it’s not just how pretty and shiny stuff looks (which seems to be the standard now days), but the actual design of structures and landscapes are enough to make an architect weep with joy. Square-Enix has also done some visual sorcery with not just the graphics themselves, but also with fantastic lighting and screen coloration effects that I haven’t really seen in any other game.

If the visuals aren’t enough to grab you, the music will be. I have never played a game with this much variety in the soundtrack; sure, some of it is just plain terrible, but the majority of it is fantastic. One minute you’ll be running through a gorgeous forest listening to some Americanized J-pop, and then you’ll be in a fight with a giant tomato set to screamo rock (that’s not a joke by the way). Some tracks are pretty “out there” and some don’t even seem like they should be in a Final Fantasy game (or any game for that matter), but I don’t remember any track ever feeling out of place in the context. Let me just say that this is the first video game soundtrack I have considered buying since Chrono Cross’. It’s not only the music that’s wonderful, but the voice acting as well. There is a lot of voice acting in the game; there isn’t one scene or even simple NPC dialogue without voice acting, and it’s actually good!

Love it or hate it, the Paradigm battle system is back. I personally love it. Basically, there are six “roles” Serah, Noel, or your third party member (I’ll get to that a little later) can take on. For example, Commando is an offensive, damage-dealing role, while Sentinel is a defensive role which focuses on protecting the entire party. A “Paradigm” is any combination of the roles; you make up to six Paradigms from the main menu, and you can switch between Paradigms on the fly in battle. For example, you can have a Commando-Commando-Ravager Paradigm to deal damage, and then also have a Sentinel-Medic-Sentinel to switch to when you are getting low on health. Your other two party members are controlled automatically, and even though there isn’t much at all in terms of customizability like we had in Final Fantasy XII, they still pretty much do all the stuff I would have done anyway if I was in control, and to my embarrassment they usually do things smarter than I actually would have. The third party member I mentioned is reserved for monsters which you can collect from battles. If you’re like me, you think you’ll hate it but then end up loving it. It all works smoothly when you get the hang of it and learn how to set up proper Paradigms; and while some people are desperately terrified of any change, I think anyone who plays or even watches has to admit that it makes the battles much faster, more interesting, and streamlines pretty much everything that makes up a Final Fantasy battle system.

Then I finished the game. And it was the worst ending I’ve seen. In any game. Ever. I refused to believe the reviews warning about the horrible ending, and then I saw it and I couldn’t be in denial any longer. They claim that it is going to be “fixed” later with mini-sequels in the form of downloadable episodes, so let’s just hope they do that…because it’s bad. I really don’t want to get started talking about downloadable content, because I think it is disgusting and an excuse for companies to be lazy, as well as squeeze more money out of people who are already paying $60 for a game; so I’ll just get off the topic before I write a five page rant.

Square-Enix took a lot of risks with Final Fantasy XIII, and even more risks with XIII-2. Even if you disagree with everything I’ve said, or you hate Final Fantasy or Square-Enix, or you’re just a grumpy 80s gamer who hates everything you play now days, we should all commend the company for taking such risks and attempting to innovate in spite of an industry somewhat scared of change. Their production values were through the roof making a sequel to a game which generally wasn’t even received that well, and they listened to what fans wanted and acted on it.

Overall, I constantly switched between loving and hating the game. I would say a good 80% of the time was spent getting lost in a beautiful, fantastic, and fresh experience, and the rest was being frustrated or bored. I would highly suggest any gamer at least rent this game and play it with an open mind, if anything just for the experience of seeing what kind of innovative, interesting experiments are being done, because really there’s no other game like Final Fantasy XIII-2.

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