Final Fantasy XIII-2 Review [Xbox 360]

Square Enix attempt to fix the woes of the infamous FFXIII, but shifting focus only changes what is left blurry.

Since Final Fantasy X, it has always been a case of swings and roundabouts with the Final Fantasy franchise. For every great new innovation, there are an equal (if not more) number of classic staples left on the production office floor. As a long time fan of the series, it still begs the question 'why did they ever mess with such a great formula'? For me, FFX was the last truly great entry in the series. You had a great party who you could change mid battle with only a single button press, you actually controlled your summons like your party members and then there was Blitzball (think water polo meets rugby), the single most addictive FF mini game ever created. It may not be your favourite FF game, but I don't think many would argue that it got the technical stuff right! Sadly, FFX - 2 (the first direct sequel) was the harbinger of a series of re-inventions that has seen as many misses as it did hits. Final Fantasy XIII - 2 is finally heading in the right direction again, re-introducing town hubs and NPCs and moving away from the linear 20 hour tutorial that comprised the majority of FFXIII. Still, while the developers at Square Enix have gone a long way towards fixing the bad aspects about FFXIII, they have sadly forgotten to keep some of the things that made it a good game. That's right, I said it, FFXIII is a good game. Yeah, it has a long list of flaws, but many of those are augmented by comparison with the series' highlights. What FFXIII did right was give us a strong story, an interesting and diverse party and Lightning, one of the best female characters the series has ever produced. The biggest flaws with FFXIII - 2 are apparent from the get go. Firstly, Lightning is no longer the main character, in fact she is more of a plot device than anything else. This is a shame because she looks really cool in her new armour and her steely determination is favourable to Serah's..........not so steely determination. Secondly, your party consists of two characters. Two. Your third character slot is filled by monsters that you capture on your journey (Deja vu?) which actually adds a lot of depth to the system but adds nothing to the story. This brings me to my third main complaint about FFXIII - 2, the story. It isn't bad, and I am really not complaining that the game is no longer linear but, it lacks the focus of the original. The time travel mechanic gives you a lot of choice in how you play through the story of FFXIII - 2 but it also makes the over all experience less engaging. So what does FFXIII - 2 get right? Well, a lot actually. Firstly lets talk about the two versions of the game. The original FFXIII received a rather poor transfer to the Xbox 360, arriving on multiple disks and in (seriously) standard definition. That is right, it wasn't even HD. Not only that, a lot of the graphical nuances such as lighting effects and particles were taken out. In other words, if you want to get the full experience, you had to play it on PS3. I had hoped to be reviewing the PS3 version of the game but I was sent the Xbox version however, it seems that there is very little difference this time around. The game fits snugly on one disk and plays in glorious HD. Hallelujah! Of course that doesn't mean the game looks great but, unsurprisingly it does look fantastic. The FF games are world renowned for being, if nothing else, visually stunning and FFXIII - 2 is no exception. The in-game engine is the same as was used in the first game and still looks stunning, managing to go from rendered graphics to in game graphics without a massive drop in detail. The designs have moved on slightly, harking back to past games in the franchise. Lightning's new duds are very reminiscent of FinalFantasy IV's character designs and some of the monsters that land with the meteor at the start are so much like Sin-spawn, I'm not sure they actually aren't the exact same designs. These familiar elements help to make this feel like a proper FF game rather than a spin-off. The biggest leap here is how much has been done to avoid linearity. The environments are no longer corridor after corridor, but open and intricate playgrounds that reward exploration. Beyond that, you get to chose how to progress through the game as you leap through time like Scott Bakula making wrong things right. The pay off is that to achieve this non-linear approach, the narrative is less focused and compelling. There is little motivating the action here other than finding Lightning, which is a far cry from the public enemy number one/everyone has a personal mission narrative of the original. This is further highlighted by your party of two. I'll admit, my concerns that Serah would be an annoying protagonist were expelled early on. She may run like a fairy and have terrible taste in men but she isn't the helpless victim any more. Still, between her an newcomer Noel you have only a fraction of a Final Fantasy party (ie. the girly girl and the girly boy) and you feel the lack of a rounded party both in narrative and gameplay. Your third slot in battle is filled by one of the many monsters that you capture throughout the game. You can select up to 3 to integrate into your paradigms and each monster has one specific class so early on the choices will be to plug the gaps in Serah and Noel's abilities. Later on however, as you evolve.....I mean level up your monsters things get more strategic and you actually notice the increased depth that it offers the paradigm system. The paradigm system is largely the same as it was in FFXIII with a few tweaks here and there. It is no longer game over if your party leader is knocked out, instead control passes across to the other character. Shifting is also faster allowing for some really swift engagements that use multiple paradigms in quick succession. The result is that fights are faster and more dizzying than before though, the lack of a super cool melee fighter is felt. I miss Lightning's acrobatic swordplay and Fang's.....well everything. Outside of battle, gameplay is largely the same. Random encounters are back, however, you can still avoid the battles should you wish. There are also towns and NPCs to talk to (hazzah!) though, talking to NPCs isn't as crucial as it once was. Musically, FFXIII - 2 has a very similar score to the previous game, only this time with a lot more songs. There is a really wide variety of songs on offer, from ballads to heavy metal dirges. I'm not going to say that Nobuo Uematsu's presence isn't missed, but the score for both games is still of a really high standard. The voice work is also pretty good, at least, compared to most JRPGs. The lips were re-animated for the English release of FFXIII and it seems as though the same has been done here as well as the lip syncing is very good. What lets the voice work down is a terrible script, filled with cliché and nonsense. FFXIII - 2 may not be as long as its predecessor, but it still clocks in at a solid 30+ on the first play through without completing all of the side missions. There are also multiple endings and the option to revisit a time sequence and do it again to gather missed items or achieve a more satisfactory result. All in all, if you fall in love with Serah (or perhaps Noel.....) you could easily reach the triple figures in one game save (as should always be the case with a Final Fantasy). Much has changed and much has stayed the same. For the most part the changes are improvements, refining an already accomplished game and opening it out into a more engaging environment. If you hated the original, it is unlikely that you will be turned on by this sequel. However, if you loved the original, this is an essential purchase. I think that most people, even hard core fans were left in a strange limbo, half loving and half hating a game they wanted to embrace. This may well remedy some of that resentment and re-build some burnt bridges. Much like FFX - 2, FFXIII - 2 will likely be the harbinger of change in the franchise. Hopefully the change will be a move towards what made the series great and to celebrate it, rather than trying to re-invent the wheel. Final Fantasy XIII - 2 will be out in the UK on February the 3rd on Playstation 3 and Xbox 360.

A video editor by trade and a lover of movies, games and manga.