Monday, February 6, 2012

Review: Final Fantasy XIII-2 (PS3)

It’s hard to go into a Final Fantasy game without any expectations – be those good, or bad. Going into the sequel to the most controversial game in the series, even more so.

But I hope people are able to put aside those expectations, because Final Fantasy XIII-2 really does get things right. It’s not the perfect game, but it’s a fine entry into the series that feels like a remarkable fusion of old and new to play.

Obviously there are already thousands of reviews (may or may not be an exaggeration) for the game out there. With that comes plenty of criticisms, and to an extent all of those criticisms are fair. The plot is the main target for those criticisms, and indeed it is a very overblown story that really requires a suspension of disbelief to get through.

But let’s look at the meta reasons for the story: by engaging with that tricky beast of time travel, Square Enix has been able to engage a whole ranges of themes that a conventional narrative could never hope to play with. Through Final Fantasy XIII-2 you’ll get to experience a world over the course of literally centuries, while maintaining individual relationships with characters.

With a game like, say, Eternal Darkness (in no way similar to FFXIII-2, I merely mention it as another example of a story that spans centuries), characters come and go in the blink of an eyelid. There’s little time to understand them or their motives, and as such they’re difficult to engage with. FFXIII-2 chooses to instead engage with just two characters, and they’re likable characters, plot convolutions aside. Noel is a likable newcomer to the series, and Serah manages to balance out the female role in a rare fashion for Square Enix – she’s neither too tough, too cute, too defenceless or too perky for her own good.

Some might bemoan the lack of playable characters (and indeed this is the thinnest main cast for a Final Fantasy game, narrowly beating the all-girl threesome that teamed up for Final Fantasy X-2), but the supporting cast of XIII-2 does a good job of keeping players from feeling too lonely. The game does assume that you’ve played enough of the previous game to know what happened, and so wastes no time in reintroducing you to previously playable characters that now have important narrative roles as NPCs.

The game also features a vibrant monster collecting and levelling system that stands in for a third playable character ably. As players defeat enemy monsters they sometimes join the team. Each monster has a predefined roles (healer, fighter, support), and in any given battle, three can be brought to the table, of which one can be fighting at a time. The paradigm system that made the previous game such a joy in combat returns, and is dynamic as ever before. As paradigms shift, as does the monster that joins the party in battle.

Outside of battle, treasure can be used to level up these monsters. It’s nothing so complex as Dragon Quest Monsters or Pokemon, but it does add fresh strategic depth to the party building side of the game.

Levelling of Noel and Serah is far more traditional this time around. Earn experience points, and then use those points to level up. Each time you’ll get to improve the character in one of his/ her roles, allowing you to focus on melee or magic combat, or be a generalist as suits your play style. Square Enix has, for some reason, decided to make the levelling menu look far more complex than its reality, but after Skyrim, we should all be used to that anyway.

Other areas of the game have been refined clearly in an attempt to appease the audience of FFXIII detractors that wanted a more traditional experience. There are now “towns” – down times where there’s no combat to deal with, and players have the opportunity to interact with the people, learn a little backstory, and do a bit of shopping. What impressed me about these is that Square Enix seamlessly integrated those sections with the monster-fighting wilderness and dungeon sections, thus gently breaking up the tired JRPG structure of “town, dungeon, wilderness, town” that would have been completely out of place in this game.

There’s also sidequests, now seamlessly integrated into the game’s structure, and the game itself is now far more open – rather than be funnelled down a path the entire game, players are able to jump around to different time periods and dungeons now have some room to explore. You’ll still experience the game Square Enix wants you to experience – Final Fantasy will never be like Skyrim – but at least this time around you’re not going to feel like you’re being led by the collar. .

FFXIII-2 also feels far more like a Final Fantasy game. A moogle plays an important role in the game, and as always, he’s adorable. Chocobos are less of a hidden gimmick, and more a core part of the game. There’s even a chocobo racing minigame, which is a diversion worth plugging time into.

And finally, the presentation, which is as gorgeous as you’d expect. The world, as it shifts through various time periods, remains constantly surprising and breathtaking in scope. Character models are gorgeous, and the voice acting is quite reasonable, on average. There’s the occasional moment of awkward dialogue, but that’s on par with the series.

The only disappointment was the music, which at times degenerated into weak heavy metal, in a bid to be hard hitting or edgy, I guess. Thankfully those moments are few and far between, and the bulk of the soundtrack is as elegant as always.

The real problem FFXIII-2 faced was the expectations, which have, for this series, grown to the point where no one could possibly manage them. But putting that aside? This is a heck of a ride.

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